D'Angelo's masterpiece at 20: Sean McPherson runs the 'Voodoo' down

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D'Angelo - Voodoo album cover
Released on January 25, 2000, D'Angelo's album 'Voodoo' has inspired many, including The Current host Sean McPherson. (Courtesy Virgin Records)

In January of 2000, every record store I went to had ominous promotional signs emblazoned with a large letter "D" in an Old English style, and the words "1/25 is D-Day". At the turn of the 21st century, the first way you consumed new music was still with your eyes, and I was counting down until the 25th with great enthusiasm. The magazines, advertisements and the advance single "Devil's Pie" had all been screaming "you are going to like D'Angelo's new record!" If I fell for the record, it'd be the first R&B record I could really get behind. I dug "Brown Sugar" and a couple other tracks from D'Angelo's debut, plus I liked rock, I liked blues and I loved hip-hop. But R&B hadn't clicked with me yet. But the co-sign of Questlove was a huge thing for me at the time (still is, to be honest). So I bought Voodoo, tore off the shrink-wrap and listened to it, but it didn't stick with me. I kept it in rotation, listening to two tracks and then promptly skipping back to a CD with more syllables per measure. It took a different way in for me to fall for what is now my favorite record ever.

It actually started while I was reading the liner notes. I was playing the CD, just willing something to happen to my mindstate, when I read this long paragraph by D'Angelo critiquing the modern era of rap:

Whoa! Why am I attacking hip-hop? 'Cause I'm a lyricist, son, a lyricist that has had to serve as his own inspiration when most of my peers to seem to idolize Donald Trump more than Sly Stone, when they don't seem to realize that Jimi Hendrix was and is a sonic Bill Gates. Oh sh*t, don't make me call no names.

It was that line that made me realize that just because he was singing, and sometimes singing under his breath, I had to start digesting D'Angelo as a lyricist, not just as an R&B icon.

I went back in, I looked for the lyrics in his mumbles, the statements in his whispers, and the message in his music. Once I started hunting around for the lyrics, I found what I hadn't heard in modern R&B yet: a conversation between the instruments and the voice. And then that conversation started to sink-in. I was just starting to learn that the conversation between the lyrics of a song and the musical arrangement was an ancient and sacred one, and D'Angelo and Questlove were the masters of this conversation in the modern age. I was learning how to drop the one and how to quiet the snares on the punchlines from all the rappers in Minneapolis, I was learning how to go quiet on the four-chord during a blues song from my brother.

Until I heard this D'Angelo record, I thought this conversational interplay was just tricks: showstoppers, Vegas-style send offs for musical guests. I didn't realize it was a part of the ritual, and often the essence of the song until I heard Voodoo. It was on the track "Playa, Playa" that I first heard the conversation start. Go to 6:37 and you'll hear Questlove drop in a heavy bass drum on the 'e' past two (don't worry if that doesn't mean anything to you, it didn't mean anything to me at the time either. Just listen). Then the bass played (played by Pino Palladino) jumps in with a low note on the 'e' past four. It's simple, it's elementary, but to be honest I might never have played bass the way I do if those two hadn't started that conversation. My band, Heiruspecs, built a reputation for really learning an artist's tracks in deep detail when we started backing up other rappers. It became one of our calling cards and I have those two seconds from "Playa, Playa" to thank for that.

Voodoo was also the first time musicians I worshipped were so clear about their musical scholarship. The Rolling Stone cover article by Toure became my syllabus. These musicians heard something in Fela, so would I. They worshipped Joni, so would I. They stayed up all night dissecting records and trying to find the nuts-and-bolts of unexplainably soulful music, so would my crew. Most nights after their sessions, D'Angelo and company would head to the Waverly Diner in the Village to eat. At the time, my girlfriend went to NYU and she and I made many a pilgrimage both to Waverly Diner and to the steps of Electric Lady studio where they tracked the record just to try to pull in some inspiration.

Like all awe-inspiring records, this one sent me down a thousand paths to find out about other musicians. Who was Roberta Flack? Why was Larry Graham to be worshipped above all other bassists? In the Rolling Stone article, D'Angelo stated "I ain't never went to college, so this [making Voodoo] was my equivalent." Within two years of Voodoo's release, I dropped out of college and was making my way in the footsteps of these players. Did Heiruspecs use the beat from "Chicken Grease" for years on the road? Yup. Did I play a reworked version of the "Playa, Playa" bassline into a bit for Martin Devaney's band? Absolutely. Do I play the way I play because of this record? 100%.

Voodoo also taught me reverence for the "studio as an instrument" technique of production. Before this album, I thought of mixing a record largely as a set of cardinal choices about the volumes of instruments in relationship to each other and prioritizing the lead vocal above all else. It was on tracks like "The Root" and "Feel Like Makin' Love" that I understood the power of whispering your boldest statements and of teasing your thesis into a jigsaw puzzle. I could hear that the mix engineer, Rusell Elevado, was creating sonic textures that would take hundreds of listens to start to digest. In the liner notes D'Angelo wrote "these songs are incantations, testaments of artistry, confessions of an Aquarius as he steps into his own". Without the sonic patience and courage that Elevado brought to the mixes, the songs would've been far from incantations.

This record also taught me more about black music than I fully digested at the time. As a young white man making my way focused on playing blues and hip-hop music, I was just starting to understand the sinews and tendons that held these exalted genres together. D'Angelo's gift to me on this record was not that he made these connections between the Pentecostal Black Church, voodoo rituals in Havana, Gillespie-style horn workouts, Method Man braggadocio and sultry crooning loud and clear, it was that he whispered them to me. I held my ear to the speaker, crossed my eyes trying to read the fine print in the liner notes and started to make my way as a fan, student and player of black music.

Perhaps to the detriment of D'Angelo's career, there was a big hit on the record. "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" and its hypnotizingly sultry, suggestive one-shot video turned D'Angelo into a superstar. No longer could D'Angelo sit side-by-side on a couch with Questlove devouring the latest James Brown bootleg they had procured. D'Angelo had the demands and the schedule of a sex symbol. On top of that, D'Angelo anticipated crowds to treat him like a musical icon, and instead at many shows he was objectified and urged to remove his shirt before he had played a note. Thankfully, D'Angelo's touring team figured out ways to reorganize the show and by the time I caught him in Minneapolis on August 16, 2000 at the Orpheum Theater, his show was the definition of world class.

After the Voodoo World Tour came to a close, D'Angelo spent a decade where he was more likely to be read about in a tabloid for driving infractions than in a concert review from Rolling Stone or Vibe.The gift of the album Voodoo became a curse for D'Angelo for quite some time. But, with the 2014 release of Black Messiah and with some very successful outings on the road (including a breathtaking duo show between he and Questlove at the First Avenue Mainroom), D'Angelo has returned on his terms and remains a vital part of the music world.

Whenever that next record comes I'll have my ear to the speaker, waiting to find out what he'll whisper to me next.

Listen to Purple Current on Saturday to hear highlights from 'Voodoo' every hour; on Radio Free Current, (Saturday, 7-10 p.m.) Sean will celebrate "apex" moments of artist's careers, epitomized by D'Angelo's 'Voodoo.'


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