Old School's New Soul

Soren Baker writes about pop music for Calendar

D'Angelo knew that he wasn't in the right frame of mind when he started working on his second album three years ago. The singer was burned out from touring. He felt immense pressure from his record company to make a commercially potent follow-up to his hit debut album, 1995's "Brown Sugar."

The mix of exhaustion and pressure produced a severe case of writer's block, and starting in 1997 he had an additional distraction--Michael D'Angelo Archer II, the son born to him and his then-girlfriend, singer Angie Stone.

His options were to rush an album that would capitalize on his success but might ultimately tarnish his reputation, or take longer and risk losing his momentum, a precious asset in the fast-changing music business.

D'Angelo's decision? Well, when "Voodoo" comes out Tuesday, it will be nearly five years after his debut.

"I was just trying to create, taking my time to make the best music possible," D'Angelo says. "I kind of just shut out all of the extracurricular activities that were going on around me that [I didn't have] before I got a record deal.

"Before I did 'Brown Sugar,' I was at home in Richmond [Va.], just writing songs and doing whatever I wanted to do. I tried to keep it there. All of the record company [dealings] and all of the expectations, I just tried to shut that out."

Indeed, the expectations for "Voodoo" are extremely high.

Besides selling 1.4 million copies in the U.S., "Brown Sugar" was a groundbreaking album that reintroduced old-school soul values to a field that was bogged down in themes of mindless sexual pursuit and locked into a hip-hop style of production.

He arrived out of nowhere with a classic sound, an old-fashioned gallantry and a soothing voice that evoked Prince and Curtis Mayfield. Among the current class of artists indebted to his impact: Macy Gray, Maxwell and Lauryn Hill.

"I think the anticipation [for "Voodoo"] really stepped up when the second video hit," says Violet Brown, director of urban music for the Wherehouse retail chain, alluding to the steamy video for the new single "Untitled." In the clip, the singer appears to be naked as he stands and sings the sensuous song.

"I'm not really going after the sex symbol thing," D'Angelo says with a wry smile. "I'm going for a music thing. That's what I'm here for and that's what I do. I'm not here to be no sexy man or no model."

But Brown says that calls to Wherehouse stores asking about the album have increased significantly since that video debuted. It just might be the marketing tool needed to jump-start the campaign, which started slowly when the first single, "Left & Right" wasn't an instant smash. Early reviews of the album have also been mixed.

But the music on "Voodoo" shows that D'Angelo made the right decision when he stepped back and slowed down.

Songs such as the spare "Left & Right," with rappers Method Man and Redman, and the pulsating "Spanish Joint" add a new musical direction to D'Angelo's sound, but like "Brown Sugar," "Voodoo" sounds as if it were lifted from another era, with its moody organs, thick bass lines and heavenly background choruses. And D'Angelo's gentle falsetto is back to calm any troubled spirit.

"This brother is what we needed to rotate into from years ago, what Marvin Gaye was doing, what Parliament was doing," singer Mary J. Blige says of her friend. "He is soul right now. This is not something he rehearsed. It was born in him. He's a natural-born soul child."

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It can't be easy to be cast as the savior of soul music, but D'Angelo, 25, seems relaxed as he sits in a Wiltern Theatre dressing room before his headlining performance at a benefit concert last month. He's slouched in his stiff chair, casually smoking a cigarette and speaking in a hushed tone about the pressures and complications surrounding his new album.

He claims to be unconcerned about the reaction fans and critics will have to "Voodoo." That's one of the reasons he took a different direction when he recorded it.

Many artists stick to a formula once they achieve success, but D'Angelo took a different approach to the new album, emphasizing live instruments and improvisational studio sessions. The result is a much rawer record.

"I always thought 'Brown Sugar' was a little overproduced," he says. "It was a little too slick. I used to love the 'Brown Sugar' demos we recorded in Virginia. I wanted this album to feel like that. I wasn't too concerned with things sounding too perfect or neat or clean. A lot of [the sound] is dirty, and it's intentionally like that.

"I shut all of the record company people out," he adds with a smile. "They didn't know what I was doing. They just knew I was spending money working on this music. They didn't hear nothing. When I turned it in to them, they didn't know what to expect, and I guess it wasn't what they expected. They were expecting to hear a lot of radio-type singles, but the album is a lot of live instrumentation and a lot of groove."

"It's not that we weren't pleased with what was going on," says Ray Cooper, president of Virgin Records America, which releases D'Angelo's music. "But what we were hoping to happen was that we would have a song with Lauryn Hill, which obviously didn't happen for various reasons. I don't think we were ever under any concern that it wouldn't be a good album. We just wanted that Lauryn Hill song."

"I just surround myself with the type of things that I want to project," D'Angelo says. "I don't listen to the radio that much. Most of the stuff that I listen to is old-school music. Especially on this album, I totally shut myself off to what was going on so that I could get into what I was going to do."

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Like most soul singers, Michael D'Angelo Archer attended church regularly in his youth, but after his parents divorced when he was 5, it became more than a place of worship--it was the place where he grew as a person. He absorbed traditional values there, and he also encountered his first musical inspiration--a pianist named Randolph who could "play anything and make it sound perfect."

By the time he was 15, D'Angelo was coordinating his Pentecostal church's music. He was also working on hip-hop music with friends in Richmond. Recording as the rap group I.D.U., they sent tapes to record companies in New York, and a senior executive at the Universal Music Group was impressed--especially with the production, which D'Angelo had done.

D'Angelo, by now proficient on piano, guitar, bass and other instruments, signed a publishing deal in 1991. That led to his recording contract with now-defunct EMI Records, which released "Brown Sugar."

But life in the limelight wasn't something he was used to. After all, he was raised country. Richmond contains elements of a bustling metropolis, but it still has a small-town feel. When D'Angelo's album exploded, he wasn't ready.

"I had to come to terms with what had happened and I had to accept what had happened," he says. "That took a second. I was in a state of rejecting it almost. I believed in what I was doing and I loved it. I wasn't prepared for the repercussions [of stardom]. I didn't know and I had no idea of what to expect, really.

"When it all came, it kind of took me aback. I enjoyed just chilling for a second, just breathing and not worrying about anything."

This period of reflection allowed him to reconnect with his early self. "I was just living," D'Angelo says of his time between albums. "After the 'Brown Sugar' tour, I kind of went into a writer's block. I went back to Virginia and just chilled out. I just kind of put in my head what I wanted to do.

"I was basically putting together what I was going to do for this album. I needed to reiterate why in the first place I was doing this. It was because of the love of the music."

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