A solo artist can’t exactly split up and reunite with himself, but D’Angelo’s appearance at Brixton Academy this evening is as hotly anticipated and as downright unlikely as any of the big name band reformations of recent times.
The Beatles released everything they ever recorded in less time than it has taken the Virginia soul singer born Michael Archer to come up with a third album. Both World Wars were wrapped up more quickly. In fact, since Voodoo, D’Angelo’s second long-player, was released in January 2000, he seems to have done little but flit between arrests and court appearances.
In 2006 there were reports of attempts by his manager to get him to attend a rehab facility for alcohol addiction. In 2010, a mugshot was released to the media after he was arrested for attempting to pay $40 for oral sex to an undercover police officer in New York. He looked fat and sleepy, a world away from the lip-licking beefcake with the Action Man torso who appeared apparently naked in the notorious video for his 2000 single Untitled (How Does it Feel) – a smouldering clip still considered so raunchy that you have to confirm you’re over 18 before you watch it on YouTube.
Arrests, addictions – he’s the R&B Pete Doherty, right? Wrong. People are genuinely excited about tonight’s reemergence (so much so that a second show has been added tomorrow evening) because before he disappeared, D’Angelo was looking very much like his generation’s Prince or Marvin Gaye. He was the real deal, a great soul voice backed by real funk and jazz instruments at a time when hip hop’s lazier sample culture, personified by Puff Daddy, had attained commercial dominance. Even more impressively, he wrote all the songs and played those instruments mostly himself, making him a fully rounded music auteur of the type that comes along all too rarely. He led the way for the neo-soul movement of the late Nineties and beyond – singers producing complex, authentic soul music such as Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Jill Scott.
If he had a flaw musically, it was sounding too much like Prince. He even covered Prince’s She’s Always in my Hair on the Scream 2 soundtrack in 1997. But taking inspiration from such a lofty idol proved worth it in the early part of the last decade, when he took the Voodoo album on tour reworked as a fiery soul revue. It cemented his reputation as an essential live act, something that he’s only getting the chance to reconfirm now.
On record, his sound is more restrained and deeply sensual. Stick on either of his albums, Voodoo or 1995’s debut Brown Sugar, in the company of your life partner and you’ll probably be expecting a baby by track three. On Lady, his biggest hit, he assures you: “There’s no other lover for you or me/You’re my Lady”. Amid the finger clicks and funk guitar of Left and Right, he offers to “Smack your ass/Pull your hair/And I even kiss you way down there”. The six-minute Feel Like Makin’ Love speaks for itself.
If all this sexy stuff tempts a snigger, be assured that it comes from a serious place. D’Angelo’s explanation for the five year gap between his two albums to date was writer’s block, which was cured by the birth of his son by his ex-girlfriend and fellow singer Angie Stone. “I realised that everything that exists, all music, comes from Africa,” he told Vibe magazine at the time. “I started to see all the connections of music pointing back to Africa, and I wanted to express all those genres. Like what Sly [Stone] was trying to do, like what Prince was trying to do, and Jimi [Hendrix] too.”
But after Voodoo the album and tour were finished, there were less savoury reasons for his absence from music. In November 2002 he was charged with resisting arrest, aggressive driving, assault, curse and abuse and disorderly conduct after a row with a woman at a petrol station in Virginia. In 2005 he was pulled over in his hometown of Richmond Virginia and charged with drunken driving, possession of marijuana and possession of a controlled substance (believed to be cocaine). Just a couple of weeks after getting a three-year suspended sentence for that one, he crashed his Hummer while not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from the car, sustaining minor injuries. Then there was that paying a policewoman for sex thing.
Now, thankfully, all signs point to a return to professionalism, and the release later this year of a new album that was threatening to rival Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy on the painful gestation front. we knew he still had the voice from guest appearances on Common’s Finding Forever album in 2007, Q-Tip’s The Renaissance in 2008 and Mark Ronson’s Record Collection in 2010. Ronson has reportedly been involved with D’Angelo’s new album, James River, which still has no release date. Eighteen months ago claimed: “I know he’s been working nonstop. It’s not like they’ve been sitting on their asses.”
A long-term collaborator, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of hip hop band The Roots, gave an attention-grabbing interview to Pitchfork just two months ago, in which he said that the new album was “97 per cent done” and likened it to The Beach Boys’ Smile, Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Miles Davis on the Corner – no pressure then. “He needs somebody to smack him and take the record away from him because it’s pretty much finished,” he added.
But if anything’s going to reassure his patient public it’s these concerts. He’s already been seen in Stockholm, Paris and Amsterdam, looking a good deal trimmer than that mugshot and receiving enthusiastic reviews for sets that are more intimate than the Voodoo tour but still feature epic musical workouts such as a 20-minute Shit, Damn, Motherfucker. The airing of two new songs, The Charade and Sugar Daddy, are the most concrete proof that this wayward legend really is back and has a future we can all look forward to.