Over 14 years after his last album, the seminal neo-soul text, “Voodoo,” defined an era, D’Angelo sauntered on stage in a classroom-sized theater at the Brooklyn Museum – as if he hadn’t been gone a day. His signature cornrows dangled beneath a black fedora, cocked to the side, as he slumped into a leather couch on stage and threw one arm over the back of it. Heavier set than the iconic images from the infamously intimate “Untitled (How Does it Feel?)” music video and the cover of “Voodoo” (that still define him for millions of fawning fans), he had the build of a retired football player in a black leather jacket, grey scarf and ripped, baggy jeans. Speaking in a soothing southern drawl and frequently meeting questions with sustained, contemplative pause, he dripped with the timeless cool of the R&B legends with whom he has often been compared: Marvin Gaye, Prince, Al Green.
Nelson George, the journalist, documentarian and former Billboard columnist, moderated the conversation – a special presentation of the month-long Red Bull Music Academy New York Festival. After a GQ cover story in 2012, it was only the second substantial D’Angelo interview to have taken place in over a decade.
As is customary at RBMA events – which sometimes include lectures – discussion was restricted largely to the craft of music, with ample time devoted to matters of guitar technique and the various, uncommon gifts of D’angelo’s accomplished band members. For an artist who has been remarkably off-the-map for over ten years, suffering from reported alcohol and substance abuse, depression and a near-fatal car crash, the chosen line of questioning was sometimes frustratingly anodyne.
But the crowd didn’t seem to mind. They clutched their chests and leaned forward in their seats, delighted at the opportunity to spend an hour with the elusive and mercurial figure. The mood was jovial and light-hearted, like a family gathering enlivened by a beloved but transient cousin. During several musical interludes, which saw D’Angelo himself brazenly light up a cigarette* on stage, audience members lost themselves and were transported by the warm, evocative sounds of “Playa Playa” and “Devil’s Pie.” When the music stopped, the crowd became despondent.
Whatever demons have plagued D’Angelo’s last 14 years, the singer and multi-instrumentalist was remarkably sharp and lucid, with a near perfect memory. He was most animated when regaling the audience with stories of his unlikely rise to stardom, including a victorious appearance on Amateur Night at the Apollo at age 16, a gig in 1994 writing for R. Kelly, Boyz II Men and Brian McKnight as a part of the one-off R&B supergroup Black Men United and his early hip-hop band in Richmond, Virginia, IDU (short for Intelligent, Deadly and Unique).
The trips down memory lane were eventually aided by audience member Questlove, The Roots drummer and producer who famously played on much of “Voodoo” and who D’Angelo welcomed to the stage as a “long lost brother who I met when I was 22.” Questlove, the story goes, was initially dismissive of “the R&B dude” but, after hearing the demos for his first album “Brown Sugar,” devoted himself to earning a place in D’Angelo’s inner circle. The two artists collaborated throughout the late ’90s in Jimmy Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios in New York’s East Village, sharing studio space with Erykah Badu, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli and the late producer J Dilla – as members of a pivotal collective that would eventually be known as the Soulquarians.
In his questions, George made frequent references to new, more rock-oriented D’Angelo music, which at present can only be heard in recordings of the artist’s sporadic string of live shows between 2011 and 2013. But there were no specifics about an oft-teased new album, which has been gestating in secret for years and was characterized vaguely by D’Angelo as a distinct but natural evolution from “Brown Sugar” and “Voodoo.” If anything, the talk was a tantalizing reminder that the D’Angelo of myth is alive and well, still making vivid and visceral music and still not sharing it with the world. Hopefully, it won’t take another 14 years for that to change.
*This article has been updated to reflect that it was a cigarette that was lit on stage and not a blunt.