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Crowning the Latest King of Soul

TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

They say that good things come to those who wait, but you can’t blame soul music fans for being a little impatient over the last few years.

It has been more than two decades since Al Green, arguably the greatest soul singer ever, returned to gospel music, and no one has stepped forward during that period to lay a convincing claim on his secular crown.

But the wait is officially over.

In a spectacular, almost three-hour performance Wednesday that opened a five-night stand at the House of Blues, D’Angelo showed the ambition, charisma and talent to be the male soul singer of his generation.

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He could use a few more accessible songs that have the universal pop-soul appeal of Green’s “Tired of Being Alone” and “I’m Still in Love With You,” but D’Angelo is just 26, as was Green when he started to build his arsenal of Top 20 hits, so there’s plenty of time for this young artist, who writes or co-writes most of his material, to step up his own game.

The Virginia native served notice five years ago with “Brown Sugar,” a debut album that suggested he could be a contender.

Though the songs were fairly straightforward tales of romantic obsession and search, D’Angelo’s vocals showed some of the character and range of several A-level models--including the falsetto touches of Curtis Mayfield and the sensual intimacy of Marvin Gaye. He stirred even more excitement live than with the record.

But D’Angelo spent a long time on the sidelines before returning with his follow-up album, and there was always the danger of a sophomore slump.

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The first good sign was the album, which was released in January. Titled “Voodoo,” it is a work of considerable more complexity and depth than “Brown Sugar.” In the new collection, D’Angelo sometimes sacrifices melody for grooves, but he compensates with an artistic independence that is rare in this era of widespread facelessness in all areas of popular music.

Still, the test of a soul singer is on stage--and the atmosphere at the House of Blues was as electric as a prize fight as the capacity crowd waited to see if reality could live up to the high expectations.

After a warmup number by his 10-piece band and three backup singers, D’Angelo walked on stage with the somewhat stiff expression that he seems to favor in album cover and publicity photos.

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Wearing an imposing, full-length black coat, he stood relatively motionless as he began “Devil’s Pie,” one of the most appealing numbers on the new album. It’s a bluesy tale of sin and salvation with an inner tension that’s reminiscent of Mayfield and Gaye.

About halfway through the number, D’Angelo suddenly began opening up as a performer--not with familiar splits and twists a la James Brown and Prince, but with more personalized steps that seemed to resonate perfectly with the disciplined, dynamic sounds of the band. Best of all, he punctuated everything with a winning smile, and he’d frequently go across the stage and clasp hands with one of the musicians.

For the rest of the show, D’Angelo moved back and forth between funky workouts (the good-natured “Chicken Grease”) and sensual ballads. In most cases, he nearly doubled the length of the recorded songs into six- and eight-minute extravaganzas.

That’s a dangerous game plan because most pop songs benefit from compactness, but D’Angelo added personality and heat to the material as well as length. He also has a winning sense of showmanship. He knew just when to reward the squealing fans by taking off his jacket and undershirt.

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At the end, he stepped away from the revue dazzle to establish an intimacy with the audience by bringing a female fan on stage for some gentle dance steps as he sang “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” a Prince-influenced number that has been the most played song on R&B; radio for weeks.

Like Lauryn Hill, whose music also has strong soul sensibilities, D’Angelo is a product of the hip-hop generation, and there’s acknowledgment of that style in his approach. Yet his vision is tied even more closely to the legacy of soul music--and the legacy is in good hands.

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* D’Angelo, tonight, Sunday and Monday at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. Sold out. (323) 848-5100. Also April 7 and 8 at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 8:15 p.m. $25.50-$50.50 (April 8 show goes on sale March 11). (818) 622-4440.

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