WHAT THE F@%! HAPPENED?! (PT. II): D’Angelo
Early on the morning of March 6th, 2010 Michael Eugene Archer, better known by his stage name D’Angelo, was arrested and charged with solicitation after allegedly propositioning an undercover female police officer for oral sex. D’Angelo requested a $40 blowjob from the young woman, yet upon searching his vehicle after the arrest, officers found $12,000 in cash stashed in his SUV. The incident made headlines across the country, many of them humorous and sarcastic (“D’Angelo: R&Busted!”, etc.), and news of the incident shocked both fans keeping track of D’s progress in regards to his recovery and return to music, as well as those who maybe haven’t thought much of the guy since he was half-naked on their TV screens every night for 3 or 4 months.
Now I guess after a decade of an utterly debilitating drug and alcohol addiction, and repeated run-ins with the law, one perhaps shouldn’t find such news all that shocking. But, delays and all, D’Angelo had seemed to be seriously getting the ball rolling on his looooooong-awaited third album, entitled James River. Collaborators had been announced, songs had been leaked; there were even reports that the guy had finally gotten clean, was hitting the gym, and potentially poised to make a triumphant return to the scene. And that only makes D’s most recent fuck-up all the more disappointing.
Ten years after taking R&B music to new heights, after becoming the sex symbol of the moment with his iconic “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video, and after respected music critic Robert Christgau dubbed him “R&B Jesus”……
WHAT THE F@%! HAPPENED?!
Raised in a strict Pentecostal family in Richmond, Virginia, D’Angelo’s musical talents were discovered at an incredibly young age (3 years-old, to be exact) and by his late teens he was already writing impressive, fully-conceptualized compositions, resulting in a record deal, and the release of his classic debut album, Brown Sugar, in 1995. Powered by intoxicating hits like “Brown Sugar” and “Lady,” Brown Sugar sold 2 million copies in the United States, and is consistently credited with helping to jumpstart the Neo-Soul movement. Possessing an incredibly smooth falsetto and inarguable songwriting chops, critics and fans lauded D’Angelo as the savior of R&B, a genre that had begun a slow and painful descent into the radio-friendly and trite since the mid-80’s. His music was raw and romantic, melodic and complicated, soulful and hip hop, and it sounded like nothing else at the time. And he was only just getting started.
After the success of Brown Sugar, D took his time with a follow-up album, determined to break the mold with his next release. Retreating to Jimi Hendrix’s famous Electric Lady Land Studios, D anchored a musical collective called the Soulquarians, comprised of such famous names as The Roots, J. Dilla, Erykah Badu, Common and Bilal. All of these artists worked simultaneously on their respective projects, jamming, collaborating, and listening to and studying masterpieces from the likes of Sly & the Family Stone, Prince, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Al Green and George Clinton, as well as old Soul Train bootlegs. Beginning roughly in 1996, these artists would produce some of the most outstanding Hip Hop/Soul albums of the late 90’s as a result of these sessions, including The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. And arguably the crown jewel of these sessions is D’Angelo’s incomparable Voodoo, quite easily the most groundbreaking, forward-thinking R&B album of the past ten years. The production was murky and surreal, reminiscent of Sly’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, with D’s silky, elastic falsetto floating over the proceedings in an almost mystical fashion. Everything on Voodoo is a ten, from the deceptively intricate musicianship, to the hard-edged lyrical content. And when it finally saw a release after numerous delays in January of 2000, Voodoo shot to number one on the Billboard 200, staying there for two weeks.
D’Angelo had taken serious risks with Voodoo, challenging the listener with a complex, new sound, and it paid off; Voodoo sold 1.7 million copies in the U.S., and earned D a Grammy for Best R&B Album. Later that year, he launched The Voodoo Tour, a three-hour extravaganza of soul, funk and hip hop that won rave reviews and sold-out concert halls across the country. By the end of 2000, D’Angelo was without question THE man, receiving commercial and critical success, and thus free to go in any direction he wanted artistically. And then he disappeared.
WHAT THE F@%! HAPPENED?!
D’Angelo’s music video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is unquestionably one of the greatest ever made. Certainly, one can simply view it as a cheap publicity stunt, and that’s fine. But during an era in which mainstream R&B music (then and since) was marked by boring, radio-friendliness and rap music video clichés, D’s masterpiece was at the very least refreshing. Rather than being showy, this video was simplistic. Instead of being lewd, this video was intimate. Instead of objectifying women, D objectified himself. But of course, no one saw it that way at the time. And when D’Angelo began to feel like his perceived sexual prowess was overshadowing his artistic prowess, well…that’s when the problems started.
According to a 2008 article in Spin Magazine, D didn’t take very kindly to being objectified. This was a serious, decidedly introspective musician who had slaved over Voodoo for over 2 years in order to make it perfect, and yet when he went out on stage, all he saw were people staring at his body. According to those close with him at the time, this bothered D’Angelo more than the American public ever realized; he began to work out incessantly, obsessed with maintaining a physical perfection seared into the brains of his fans (thanks to that damn music video). Many nights, even as the band was hitting a musical high point, all he heard were cat calls and requests for him to lose his shirt. D began to respond with anger, breaking stage equipment and overturning tables backstage in frustration. And when this frustration grew into debilitating insecurity, and then collided with intense depression over the death of a close friend a year later, D’Angelo removed himself from the public eye completely, refusing to do interviews or appearances to this day, and quickly sunk into drug and alcohol addiction.
And then came the inevitable brushes with the law. In January of 2005, D’Angelo was arrested for possession of cocaine and marijuana, as well as driving while intoxicated. He was ordered to pay a fine, had his license revoked, and received a suspended jail sentence. A week after the sentencing, D suffered serious injuries when the SUV he was riding in crashed and he was ejected from his seat. He was charged with reckless driving and driving with a suspended license, received more fines, and another suspended jail sentence. After this turn of events, D’Angelo finally checked himself into rehab on the island of Antigua. Since then he seemed to be cleaning up his act, announcing a title for his third album (the aforementioned James River), and even appearing on some of his friends’ albums, including Common’s Finding Forever and Q-Tip’s The Renaissance. Shit seemed all good…until the night of March 6th, 2010.
And so we’ve come full circle. D’Angelo’s manager has stated that D will plead not guilty to the charges, and is still hard at work on finishing up James River. His people claim, as they have for the past 3 years, that this will be the year that the album finally sees an actual release date, and I really want to believe them. But the most important information they’ve announced is that the man is clean and sober, and that’s exciting.
And so what if he solicited a prostitute? I think he could probably do better than that, but that’s his business, right?
D’Angelo, we need James River. You’ve been working on it forever, so it’s clearly going to be amazing, so just put it out! Yeah, yeah…you’re a perfectionist, we get it. But after ten years, it’s time to put up or shut up. Have the courage to finish the painting, and present your masterpiece to the world. I mean, we’ve pretty much already lost Lauryn Hill.
You too, D?