D’Angelo – Voodoo

Love is in the air. Now, as everyone knows, there are two types of love. There’s love and then there’s love. Look at the cover of this album or at the steamy video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” and take a guess as to which one D’Angelo favors.

Did I just say there were two types of love? Well, scratch that, there are more. There is, of course, self-love (no, not that!), which isn’t necessarily bad when kept in moderation. Unfortunately, on parts of Voodoo, D’Angelo becomes overly enamored of his own voice and songs and band.

Far too many reviews of this album, I feel, have delved into just what exactly Voodoo is and how it relates to the record. Personally, I feel that these people are so desperately in seek of a soul savior and upset that Voodoo might not be what they hoped for that they’re trying to distract themselves from the mediocrity of a lot of this album by going on about the “depth” and “mysticism” of it all. So I’m not going to get into all of that; if that sort of thing can be used as justification for you to enjoy this album unequivocally, perhaps my review is not for you.

Here’s the story to date: In 1995, D’Angelo records an album called Brown Sugar that turns what passed for R&B at the time on its ear, has every critic in the country kissing his ass (and rightfully so!), and kicks off a revolution of sorts (one that, if not for Lauryn Hill, would’ve died while waiting for D’Angelo to release a new album). In the time between then and now, he’s released a number of covers on soundtracks and produced one atrocious original for the Space Jam soundtrack. Throw in that the album was delayed countless times and, oh yeah, it took him nigh on FIVE YEARS to finish it and things didn’t look at all propitious.

That brings us up to the present day. It’s a new millennium and D’Angelo has deigned to release a new album. When I first placed it in my player I was glad to see that, at 79 minutes on 13 tracks, it was a long album, at least (since then, I’m not so glad, but more on that later); initially, I had heard that it would be an album of 10 songs and include the song “Devil’s Pie” from the Belly soundtrack, a song I didn’t take to, really (perhaps because it had been so long since I had heard new D’Angelo material and was flabbergasted that that was what it took him 5 years to concoct).

Despite the build-up I’ve given it so far, there are some highpoints on this album, and perhaps that’s what fuels my vitriol for some of the less inspired moments on the album. “Send It On” is a great old-school inspired slow jam reminiscent of Prince’s “Adore.” “One Mo’Gin” exemplifies the type of song he did so well on Brown Sugar: It’s just the man and his organ (ha!) and an undulating bassline that just oozes with sex, though an album filled with this kind of song would show an utter lack of growth.

“Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is the best Prince song of the Millennium (depending on whether or not you thought it began in 2000), sounding like one of his unreleased cuts from the Controversy-era with its raw instrumentation and even rawer emotion. Unfortunately, like the recent output of the former Prince himself, the rest of the album is padded out with monotonous jamming (“Chicken Grease,” as one reviewer put it, “the most anti-social party song ever”) and songs that go on far too long (“The Line.”)

Yes, yes, I know he’s utilizing organic instrumentation, but when, for most of the album, the drummer sounds like a drum machine, what is the point? (Not necessarily a knock against ?love, also the Roots drummer, for when he’s allowed to stretch out on songs like “Spanish Joint” and “Send It On,” he embodies the very best of what this album *could’ve* been.) Essentially, it seems that D’Angelo will win plaudits for trying — well, damn it, I’m sick of people trying. In the immortal words of Yoda, “There is no try, only do.”

The aggravating thing about it is that you know what D’Angelo is capable of, and most of it is not on display here. I, personally, was unable to shake the impersonal feel of this album; one of the reasons why I love Stevie Wonder’s 70s records so much is that he makes you feel like he recorded the album especially for you — Voodoo sounds like a record made by a narcissist.

And yet, much of the album is redeemed when you get to the last track, “Africa.” It is a masterful evocation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” with its shimmering vibes and backwards guitar. “Africa” has the intimate feeling of Jimi’s classic, but it is just brimming with hope and joy. The placement of this song couldn’t be better as it ends the album on such a high and such an auspicious sign for the future of D’Angelo’s music. The last track on the album signifying a return home, it makes you think that maybe this is just a transition album, bridging the gap between where D’Angelo has been and where he’s going to go. It calls to mind the old saying, “If you want to know your future, take a look at your past.” With a doff of the cap to the motherland, and to innovators past, I’d like to think that D’Angelo is at the beginning of a journey and Voodoo represents that tentative first step.

Fred Solinger