On the evening of July 6, without any introduction, Michael Eugene Archer, better-known as D'Angelo, stepped onstage at the Essence Music Festival. The neo-soul singer performed a 75-minute set, filled with funky guitar riffs, tight harmonies, sly two-steps and his signature falsetto.
His performance at the festival's 18th anniversary, sponsored by Coca-Cola, was undoubtedly the performer's most highly publicized and anticipated show since the one-time "R&B Jesus" toured in 2000 to promote sophomore studio album Voodoo (Virgin) and his second-highest-charting single, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)." Voodoo landed atop the Billboard 200 for two weeks and spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. "Untitled" debuted on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs at No. 65 on Jan. 8, 2000, and peaked at No. 2 two months later.
Throughout the past decade, however, the Richmond, Va., native has struggled with substance abuse and various legal troubles. In March 2010, for example, he was arrested in New York and charged with solicitation after reportedly asking a female undercover police officer for oral sex.
On Jan. 26 of this year, the 38-year-old singer returned to the music scene with an intimate six-day European tour starting in Stockholm. During the nearly weeklong event, D'Angelo treated fans to a mixture of classics and fresh material, including a new song called "Sugar Daddy." In the early morning hours of June 10, Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson surprised fans by bringing out D'Angelo as a guest during his set at Bonnaroo's late-night Super Jam, marking his first U.S. performance in more than a decade. On July 1, D'Angelo made a return to TV by appearing at the 2012 BET Awards.
D'Angelo's string of performances precedes the release of his third studio album, which is tentatively titled James River. Last October, Thompson told Billboard that the singer was in the "home stretch" of finishing the album, and reportedly it was set for release this year. Apparently, more than two dozen tracks had been recorded in the past few years, with many sessions taking place at New York's Electric Lady Studios where Voodoo was made.
In addition to D'Angelo, legends including Charlie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Mary J. Blige left the crowd at the Essence Music Festival speechless. Such '90s R&B superstars as Dru Hill and Carl Thomas made their return to the stage, while rising artists Melanie Fiona and Luke James proved themselves during the four-day event that ended July 8. The festival hosted more than a dozen performances each night, with shows taking place simultaneously across five stages at New Orleans' Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Unfortunately, many of the festival's gigs overlapped, from shows on the enormous main stage to those in smaller, sponsored lounges, forcing many fans to miss some performances. The notable lineup attracted 413,000 concert-goers, making it the nation's largest African-American live music event of the year.
However, despite the buzz surrounding D'Angelo's return, the singer's set didn't exactly impress audiences. Some songs from Voodoo ("Chicken Grease," "Devil's Pie") garnered a lukewarm response from the crowd, which clearly preferred the sexy crooner they had met in the mid-'90s rather than the older, improvising rocker who took the stage. Older cuts like "Lady" from his debut album, Brown Sugar (1995), got stronger reactions.
Still, it only took two notes of "Untitled" for D'Angelo to pull the crowd-especially the ladies-back into his corner. The singer walked up from behind the piano and teased fans with his vocal prowess, his voice sounding as pristine as it did 12 years ago.
Aside from his most recent appearances, D'Angelo is scheduled to perform at Jay-Z's two-day Budweiser Made in America festival at Philadelphia's Fairmount Park (Sept. 1-2). By then audiences should have a better idea of how this comeback really feels. ••••