Let Me Tell You ‘Bout the Chicken Grease: D’Angelo’s Voodoo Turns 20

Assessing its status as the quintessential soul album of the 2000s

D’Angelo Voodoo, Virgin Records 2000

Voodoo is rarely questioned as the best R&B album of the 2000s, but how fair is that? No one else got a chance; it set the decade’s benchmark less than a month in.

And it is pretty suspicious that D’Angelo can’t really write songs, especially when he was calling out the futuristic, rhythmically expansively digital R&B at the time for being too pop and proud. So he defensively stuck to his grooves. What he can do is vibe, smoke, layer his voice into dissipating clouds. Yeah, he’s a perfectionist recluse, with gleaming abs on BET one day and a puffy mugshot another.

Lord knows that’s all legend stuff, especially the guys he takes after: the still-shockingly-gone Prince, the still-shockingly-alive Sly Stone. But the real key here is the Soulquarians, who were incubating Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun all at the same time as Voodoo. Before Kanye was whisking his entire genre away to a secret camp in Hawaii, Questlove and D’s revolving door sessions were pulling in Saul Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Raphael Saadiq, all major black names from neighboring universes into one gravitational pull. This planet moves on its own skewed axis.

For one thing, there’s proof here that J. Dilla really was a legend long before he passed. An entire (smoke-filled) room of virtuosos was trying to flow to that bent beat (Kravitz couldn’t, as it turns out), those manually programmed snares hitting early or late with simulated human error. Then there’s the horns that light up late album highlights “Spanish Joint” and “Feelin Like Makin’ Love,” the former striking tensions via congas like some lost Curtis and the Impressions track, the former interrupting its own honeydripping vocal for a Kool and the Gang-style hook. The hit, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” folds them in as subtly as an envelope lick. But they underscore everything with jazzy aplomb, giving “Spanish Joint” in particular an Afrika 70 feel that set up Common’s own Fela tribute on Chocolate. There’s hip-hop here too, with early single “Devil’s Pie” and “Chicken Grease” approaching murmured cadences and the more literal “Left & Right” bringing rap’s own Jay and Silent Bob, Meth and Red, into the living space for a snappy little armchair rhyme session.

 

VIDEO: D’Angelo “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)”

Getting all these masters in one place is one thing, but syncing them all like a clock was the genius of D’Angelo’s stewardship. You could compare it to forebears like Prince, who took on most of these roles all by himself, or Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly matches its austere collectivity but is far more stressed out. Its quest for democratic perfection is undercut by the total absence of women; sure, getting the already-estranged Lauryn to duet on “Feel Like Makin’ Love” wasn’t gonna materialize, but where was Erykah, making her own album with these people in the next room, or Angie Stone, the mother of D’Angelo’s child? 

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a work of genius. Voodoo is warm and open and not very mysterious at all compared to its flashpoints. It’s some of the least intimidating 78 minutes you’ll ever hear, all bubbling molasses and caramel as D’s voice drizzles into smooth piles of thickened melodic curls. Those are the songs. Maybe instead of There’s a Riot Goin’ On we could compare it to Bitches Brew; you can start it anywhere on the record without missing anything. Voodoo welcomes early and latecomers alike. It doesn’t beat you over the head with its sexiness, doesn’t show off its peak physical condition that you get stark glimpses of in his signature video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” You can just follow a lovely swirl like “The Line” into the pure Al Green pastiche of “Send It On” whether the sun is setting or rising. 

A triumph of maximalism masquerading as less-is-more that took five years to create and fourteen to follow up with 2014’s less unprecedented Black Messiah, which the world was panting for. These days I may even prefer 1995’s Brown Sugar myself, which is every bit Voodoo’s equal as a music machine without stretching out about it. But there’s no reason not to give it up to both, maybe even all three. D’Angelo decompresses, eventually, and picks up where he left off, deeper and stronger and burrowing into his own mastery of soul sounds. But if you want to hear a legend being born, snapping mic stands in half on tour, Voodoo is the one you want. It’s so unhurried in its grand pursuit that its status as the ultimate sex soundtrack may simply derive from the idea that it could slow down a minute man. Come on, what’s the rush? It’s every bit as much a lie-here-in-bed-all-morning album as it is a tactile pleasure enhancement. In fact, they’re the same thing.

 

AUDIO: D’Angelo Voodoo (full album)

 

 

Dan Weiss

Dan Weiss is a freelance music journalist based in Collingswood, New Jersey. He is the former (and last-ever) reviews editor at Spin magazine.

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