Can D'Angelo Transform R&B Again?

The "R&B Jesus" returns—hopefully to fill the gaping void he left 11 years ago.

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Publicity photo

If you were on the East Coast of the United States it happened early Thursday evening. You might have found out through Twitter, Facebook, IM, text message, even a phone call: D'Angelo is performing, live, in Stockholm, and it is happening now. Shaky iPhone videos began trickling onto YouTube, hastily written missives sprouting up on music blogs. Following ?uestlove's Twitter feed was like following someone having dinner with a unicorn. The first clip to spread was an eight-minute version of "Chicken Grease," and watching it was a supernatural experience, seeing the ghost of R&B past and just maybe the ghost of R&B future crammed into one man who was, suddenly and most improbably of all, the ghost of R&B present.

Eleven years have passed since Michael Eugene Archer, a.k.a. D'Angelo, last performed in public, his disappearance being one of the great mysteries—and at times, seemingly impending tragedies—in recent pop music. Spin published the most exhaustive investigation into his whereabouts back in 2008, but by that point even among the most devoted he'd become a spectral figure, washed up and left for dead.

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 he left.

R&B never entirely recovered from Voodoo, a record that essentially shoved an entire genre into an accelerating DeLorean—where we're going, we don't need roads—and then abandoned it like a confused litter of kittens. If D'Angelo is actually back—and whisper it; watching the videos the other night felt like coming upon a trembling fawn in a clearing, being scared to move lest you scare it off—it's hard to predict what it means. Thursday's Stockholm set featured four new songs, including "The Charade" and " Sugar Daddy," the former of which sounds like Secret Life of Plants-era Stevie Wonder, the latter like Earth, Wind and Fire gone to church. ?uestlove, a longtime confidant and co-conspirator, says James River, the 12-years-in-the-making follow-up to Voodoo, is "97 percent done" and describes it as "the black version of Smile," referring to the legendary Beach Boys album that's basically the Atlantis of '60s pop.

It's all probably enough to ensure that a few folks lost some sleep on Thursday. John Legend's a talented guy who's a bit too comfortable in the role of the academic neo-soulster that D'Angelo was never interested in playing; the Weeknd gets up to a lot of interesting things but in a way that suggests a few dozen worn-out copies of Voodoo kicking around his closet. D'Angelo's closest rival in terms of talent and critical regard is The-Dream, who makes phenomenal music but hangs out in a pretty different side of the pool, or at least a different pool of Prince records (The-Dream's got Controversy and 1999 on lock, while you always got the sense D'Angelo went straight for the deep cuts on Black Album and Crystal Ball).

Back in the days of Voodoo, Robert Christgau famously dubbed D'Angelo "R&B Jesus," and since Thursday the resurrection puns have flowed freely. But I'd go back even further, to what Sam Phillips, the man who recorded Elvis Presley and Howlin' Wolf and knew a bit of such things, once said about rhythm and blues music: "This is where the soul of man never dies." Sitting at a computer on Thursday, watching a ghost—dancing, sounding incredible, a vision of a musician who was once the best of his generation—it was hard not to believe, just a little, in something like that.