D'Angelo's 'Voodoo' at 15: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review
Some music comes armored in myth -- Brian Wilson's Smile sessions, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, Nas' Illmatic. In these cases, the stories of all-star personnel, torturous recording sessions, or delayed release dates are almost as important as the actual songs.
D'Angelo's Voodoo, which turns 15 on Sunday, is one of these albums -- the story behind it is the musical equivalent of a fairytale, with each plot point proving an important lesson. The album came together through endless late-night jam sessions, showing that effort and persistence pay off. A group of musicians with impressive résumés put aside ego in pursuit of a common goal, simultaneously creating a classic and demonstrating the virtues of teamwork.
Voodoo's myth is also helped by its status as the defining statement of the neo-soul movement. Like so many genre names, "neo-soul" proved easy to latch on to but not very accurate, conflating a lot of different artists in a way that ultimately proved detrimental. Some artists included under the umbrella of neo-soul, like Bilal, even seemed held back by the movement's mandate -- his 2013 album A Love Surreal was far more daring than his early work.
But the term didn't hamstring D'Angelo, and Voodoo is one of the few records associated with neo-soul that hold up outside of the period when that descriptor was popular. Of course, the album's legend was also burnished by the fact that it was the last full-length D'Angelo put out until Dec. 15, 2014. It took 14 years, 10 months, and 20 days for a follow-upto hit the stores.
The most important artists merge their unique, idiosyncratic visions with popular success. This is especially true of all the figures D'Angelo admires -- the people Questlove famously described as "Yoda's" in an interview with Toure (a group that includes James Brown, Al Green, Joni Mitchell, and Prince). Voodoo represents D's ticket into the Yoda club. The album pulled in two Grammy's, spawned a hit in "Untitled," and earned a platinum certification. It showed up on numerous critics' year-end-lists in 2000. In 2013, Bob Christgau wrote that Voodoo is "widely regarded as the greatest R&B album of the post-Prince era." The record maintained this status until recently, when D'Angelo struck again.
Read on for a track-by-track review of the album.
"Playa Playa" - D'Angelo doesn't waste any time showing that Voodoo isn't going to be a second installment of his 1995 debut, Brown Sugar: The track builds slowly, circling and vamping for more than seven minutes. "Playa Playa" foreshadows almost everything a listener will encounter during the course of Voodoo: beats staggered with the aid of hand-claps, a new emphasis on guitars and horns as opposed to keyboards, and the layered webs of vocals that D'Angelo keeps in constant conversation with each other.
"Devil's Pie" - The thunderous rush of "Devil's Pie" makes it the most straightforward song on Voodoo. It's a nod toward D'Angelo's hip-hop soul past: After ceding the sonic avant garde to hip-hop in the late '80s, R&B began to fight back in the mid-to-late '90s, and D'Angelo played an important part in that with Brown Sugar. "Devil's Pie" came together with help from the legendary hip-hop producer DJ Premier.
"Left & Right" - This is the biggest outlier on the album, as D'Angelo calls in Redman and Method Man to rap over splintered guitars. Redman (who worked with D'Angelo previously on a remix of "These Dreamin' Eyes of Mine") described the experience working with D enthusiastically in a recent Noisey interview: "He ain't even have to ask us. It was like, 'Yo, D'Angelo said it. Yes.' It could've been like, 'D'Angelo asked for you to carry his bags for the next tour.' I would've been like, 'Yes!'"
"The Line" - This is one of the most crucial tracks on the album, as Voodoo turns a corner and enters into a world all its own. No one else could make this track -- definitely not another neo-soul singer. The vocal arrangements are stunning, playing with timing, tone, texture, always on the edge of fragility but somehow managing to express strength.
"Send It On" - In a winking post-hip-hop interpolation, D'Angelo takes the horn riff from Kool & the Gang's "Sea of Tranquility" and builds it into this ballad. It's a cooler approach to the form than "Untitled," but that doesn't make it any less compelling.
"Chicken Grease" - Famously created out of jamming on Curtis Mayfield's "Mother's Son," "Chicken Grease" is crooked, liberated funk. Aside from Black Messiah's "Sugah Daddy," D'Angelo has never released another song as uninhibited in its pursuit of groove.
"One Mo' Gin" - The "One Mo' Gin"/"The Root" pairing rivals the earlier combination of "The Line"/"Send It On." But after D'Angelo let loose on the sizzling "Chicken Grease," these two songs are surprisingly contemplative, offering a radically down-tempo take on soul. "One Mo' Gin" teasingly morphs back into speedy funk for a brief moment at the end.
"The Root" - Like "The Line," "The Root" has a remarkable arrangement -- it's a testament to studio wizardry. After the five-minute mark, the vocals seem to attack the guitar riff from every direction, hoping to bury it under their unpredictable barrage.
"Spanish Joint" - D'Angelo executes another brash mood change here, shifting towards a Latin-inflected pulse. Roy Hargrove's horns mostly provide color on Voodoo rather than giving songs structural support, but Hargrove carries the melody on "Spanish Joint," twisting and turning and defining the track's curves. The precise, needle-pointed guitar solo sounds like it could've been lifted from a '50s Billie Holiday recording.
"Feel Like Makin' Love" - D'Angelo is famous for doing covers live; he's also recorded his fair share: Smokey Robinson's "Cruisin,'" Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Your Precious Love," Prince's "She's Always In Your Hair," and this version of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love." Flack's 1974 original is buoyant, a translucent, breezy seduction. D'Angelo's rendition maintains a feathery vocal, but surrounds it with a hefty, swaggering bass, suggesting two different interpretations of the love-making he has in mind.
"Greatdayindamornin'/Booty" - "Untitled" is such a monumental song, you can't just jump right into it. "Greatdayindamornin'" serves as a warning, maintaining an easy lope, playing with build and release but never threatening to overwhelm. D'Angelo ends the track with a quick palette-cleanser, sputtering off into a low-key vamp.
"Untitled (How Does It Feel)" - This is simply one of the finest ballads ever recorded in any genre. It's also the one track on the album where D'Angelo embraces the classic soul-man role, with a roaring, unhinged vocal out in front. Of course the song cuts off in the middle -- D'Angelo always refuses to give you exactly what you want. Hopefully one day an extended, uncut take of the song will surface, something akin to the 17-minute version of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby."
"Africa" - On the album's closer, D'Angelo offers a final tribute to a Yoda by sampling the drums from Prince's "I Wonder U." It's as if the explosion of "Untitled" never happened. D is back in the realm of pillowy, down-tempo soul with a track that would lull a crying baby to sleep.