Quarantining The Past: D’Angelo’s ‘Voodoo’

    D’Angelo’s Voodoo is a soul and R&B masterpiece. Let’s just get that out there. But it’s also an album absolutely lost in time. For one, on the cover it reads three separate copyright years — 1998, 1999, 2000. It’s also an album that ended up getting pushed back and released early 2000 instead of late 1999. It was a long time in the making though, apparently, not as much as its still-to-see-the-light-of-day follow up. 

    But Voodoo, for all its wide open jams and quiet tension, is oddly out of place. Yes, there were similar throwback soul artists — see Maxwell, Erykah Badu — but consider that Voodoo ended up in the first year of a new decade. It was also the last great moment for the compact disc and, in some ways, for physical media. It was a year that saw N*Sync set a first-week sales record that was nearly matched by Eminem. It also saw Creed’s 1999 album, Human Clay blow up and, along with other 2000 releases — like Nelly’s Country Grammar, Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory, and Britney Spear’s Oops…I Did It Again — all dominate charts and sales marks not just for the year, but for the decade that would follow.

    None of those artists seem as well suited to physical media as D’Angelo, a guy who’s music it too wide-open to fit on 7-inches, but would sound most at home there. And even now to see it reissued on LP by Modern Classics is great, but perhaps more closely tied to nostalgia and a boom (which pales to those 2000 numbers) in vinyl sales than a sense of purity. Still, that aside, it’s a great development for an album that deserves to be, well, an artifact. It deserves to sustain as something physical, something that takes up space in our world, important space, the way the music takes up space in our ears, in the very air around us.

    It’s also an album unmoored in musical time. It’s got a sense for current trends in hip-hop at the time. “Left & Right” feature Method Man and Redman, trying to match their bluster to D’Angelo’s cool delivery, while “Devil’s Pie” gets a lean, banging beat courtesy of DJ Premier. But there’s also the soft-yet-hard soul expanse of “Playa Playa” that recalls everything from Cutis Mayfield to On the Corner-era Miles Davis and Hendrix in its sweet, all-over-the-map guitar work. Meanwhile, “The Line” is a much cleaner soul line, something that sounds more like the heady heartbreak of Smokey Robinson. “Chicken Grease” is a stripped-down inversion of Funkadelic’s thump. Closer “Africa” reimagines more recent R&B trends, peeling back the glistening layers you might hear on a Sade or, more f lagrantly, a Luther Vandross tune, and showing the pulse underneath.

    Voodoo shows D’Angelo with a knack for getting at the heart of these traditions — of blues, gospel, funk, R&B, soul, hip-hop, classic rock, jazz — and finding his own voice. At giving us the best parts, even seemingly disparate parts, and weaving them into a brilliant and massive whole. There’s a feeling of having travelled when you get to the end of Voodoo. And, of course, one of the highlights is late-album standout “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” It’s flat out one of the finest vocal performances in soul. Period. A perfect, blue-light smolderer. But it also tends to blind people to the other myraid charms of the record.

    And in this way, Voodoo finds itself once again at odds with its time. 2000 was a time where image and music were inextricably linked. This isn’t unique to that year, but it was particularly heightened. Eminem named his first two albums after his own monikers — The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP — and lead each off with singles that emphasize his name. N*Sync’s No Strings Attached was promoted by the “Bye Bye Bye” video with a puppet-themed tie-in to the album’s title. The Backstreet Boys burned charts just a couple years earlier with “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” There was a thin line between image and music in these moments, between marketing and creation, and with the video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)”, D’Angelo unwittingly fell into the same trap.

    It’s a simple, stunning video, with D’Angelo stripped bare, exposed in the same way his singing is for the heartbreaking song. The problem is: It turns out people liked D’Angelo with his shirt off. It didn’t help things that he’s also shirtless on the album cover. The lasting image of D’Angelo as an artist comes from that video and paints him as a sex symbol, an image to be stared at instead of an artist to be examined. This also unfairly paints Voodoo as an album of slow sex jams. Now, there is plenty of mentions of love and sex (see “Left & Right” and “One Mo’gin”), but Voodoo covers so much more than that. Whether D’Angelo sings about love, usually lost, in those tracks, or in “Untitled” or elsewhere, or whether he steps out of that and casts a critical eye at hip-hop culture and the predatory nature of the drug game (among other things) on “Devil’s Pie”, Voodoo is an album about finding your place. About isolation and the search for not only acceptance but also community. “Africa” is a search for roots in the past as much as it is an attempt to bed down in the present. “Chicken Grease” sings about performance, but it’s also about attempts at connection, at turning childhood lessons into adult maturity.

    No wonder the album is so expansive, the music searching through old traditions and new innovations the way D’Angelo searches through his history, his music, his culture. What he’s found isn’t quite clear, but there’s a sense of the end of a journey with Voodoo, a sweetly exhausting, exhilarating journey, but a long one nonetheless. It’s an album buried under image and lost in time, but perhaps it’s that drifting nature that adds to its legend. It is a flawless, fearless album, one that doesn’t need to bed down in historical context. It just is, then and now, and it exists and plays as beautifully now as it did then. In the same way the records in this reissue (and you should get it, you know) spin but never move, the way the needle travels those grooves slowly, insistently, giving up every detail, so too does the music itself here. It’s perfectly built, each moment full of purpose, and thus doesn’t need borders — musical, historical, or cultural. Whenever the follow-up does come, and let’s hope it does, you might think it will have some shoes to fill. But it won’t. Voodoo is on its own plain, which is what makes it so hard to pin down, yet so easy to identify.