D'Angelo: Voodoo (Cheeba/Virgin, 2000)
I'd work harder on turning these negatives into dearly held values if I hadn't heard from several sources at the time (not just Xgau) that his live shows "changed everything up except 'Untitled'" (direct quote from an acquaintance) and several stops on the tour inspired religious experiences. No bootlegs have turned up that I know of and that's still no guarantee of visions of R&B Jesus. So for now (and probably always), Voodoo remains a skeleton of something greater that someone else witnessed.
The seventy-nine minutes of live jam and indistinct falsetto and melodic deficiency syndrome that is Voodoo, D'Angelo's sophomore disc, has little to do with the state of R&B today. Rather less monumental than that, its main achievement lies merely in how it makes his 1995 debut, Brown Sugar, sound so articulate. All sorts of noises which previously came across as too abstract or barely audible have now taken on the force of mnemonic devices: the snaky bass line in "Alright;" the warm catchiness of the title hook in "When We Get By;" the dew gathering on the keybs in "Jonz in My Bonz."
Who knows which parts of Voodoo will come to the fore once the next album is out in 2005? Many critics have amazingly claimed to hear them right now. You read about the funky space transmissions in "Devil's Pie," the backwards guitar in "Africa," the brief jazzy interlude tacked onto the end of "One Mo'Gin," all somehow seized as major pleasures. But either they're working too hard at it or they're just bullshitting because D'Angelo is barely throwing them a bone here. He's much more interested in subsuming the potential hooks and shape-shifters above into a long, undifferentiated flow.
Further obscuring any recognition factor was the decision to emulate flow through the use of tentative live jams. Where most popular artists resort to live jams as building blocks, D'Angelo opted to keep their discursive feel, reserving studio sorcery mainly for his multi-tracked, mush-mouthed falsetto. He mumbles from the margins of an already marginal music while Rootsman ?uestlove's perversely unwavering four-on-the-floor refuses to direct the flow towards the dancefloor (or anywhere really). So labeling anything in the lyric sheet "chorus" or "bridge" is obviously a tease. If you follow the verse to "Chicken Grease," quite possibly the most anti-social "get down everybody" song ever recorded, you'll notice the sour minimalism is supposed to "breakdown." But the chicken-scratch guitar is so slight and quiet that it barely registers as sound much less a breakdown.
So what does that leave to listen to? Not much or, as Greg Tate put it in Vibe, "D'Angelo defin(es) himself as much by what his funk refuses to do as by what it does to legitimately function in the post-James Brown continuum." Ok, especially in the post-everything era, that line is relatively easy to buy. But it'd smell a lot less like manure if Voodoo's running length wasn't seventy-nine minutes, twenty-six longer than Brown Sugar. D'Angelo is subject to the laws of diminishing returns just as decisively as the most anonymous ambient doodler – it's hard to keep the foreplay up that long without the promise of some sort of gush to come. Had he pruned back some, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" might have sounded as Princely as claimed. "The Line" would have told us something about his tardiness (or his tradiness) and came off as outré and less chickenshit than the debut's "Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker." And listeners wouldn't have to try so hard to enjoy it all just because they've been waiting so long for the second coming of the neosoul messiah.