It was all a sad thing, because for a long while it had been difficult to remember a time when D'Angelo wasn't the future of R&B. He'd released his
remarkable debut album, 1995's Brown Sugar, at the age of 21, the vast majority of which was written, produced, and performed by D'Angelo himself. Like most musical genres, R&B subscribes to
a Great Man theory of its own history, and the young prodigy from Richmond, Virginia was quickly anointed heir to a tradition that stretched from Ray
to JB to Sly to Stevie to Prince, and hey, throw Marvin and Michael in there for good measure.
He always did like to take his time, and when he finally released his sophomore album, Voodoo, in
January of 2000, Brown Sugar was nearly five years old. Voodoo was a difficult and brooding monster of a record, and while years'
worth of anticipation pushed it to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, some reviewers were confused and put off. Rolling Stone gave it a
tepid three stars, complaining that "long stretches of it are unfocused and unabsorbing."
Hindsight is 20/20, but what most everyone knows now—and, truthfully, a lot of people knew then—is that D'Angelo had made a masterpiece, a revelation,
the most darkly brilliant and sonically askew soul record since
There's A Riot Goin' On. Voodoo was the first R&B album to effortlessly and completely grasp the revolution that hip-hop had wrought on popular music: its
explosion of the conventions of songwriting and soundscape, its wholesale intellectual remapping of musical tradition. Nowhere was this more evident
than on "Devil's Pie," a fusion of gospel and hip-hop that's a muttering, snarling dystopia,
in which D'Angelo's off-kilter vocals careen against the snares and scratches of Gang Starr's DJ Premier. It's a prophetic and frighteningly original
piece of music. Elsewhere, tracks like "Playa Playa," "One Mo' Gin" and "Spanish Joint" pulsed with demented ecstasy, and even more radio-friendly cuts like "Send It On" were stalked by weirdness, mid-'60s Curtis Mayfield filtered through an acid flashback.
And then there was "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," the ballad that would come to both define and ultimately undo D'Angelo. Sprawled over seven minutes in length, it begins with obsessive austerity, methodically building through two verses and a
bridge, then dipping into a perfect decrescendo to set up an out-chorus culminating in what, for lack of an appropriately existent adjective, we'll
refer to simply as The Screams. It's a performance that consciously set out to be the most outlandishly erotic piece of soul music ever recorded, and
quite possibly succeeds. The music video that accompanied it—featuring the singer in an
infamous state of undress—made the song an MTV hit but coarsened its maker, reduced him to a sex symbol, all Screams and no build. It was too much, and