Why D'Angelo's 'Voodoo' is Important to Me
D'Angelo's Voodoo brought me to tears.
In 2000, the mercurial Soul singer-songwriter revealed his highly anticipated follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut. What he gifted listeners was one of the most astonishingly profound soul experiences ever put on wax.
Voodoo is one of the most vocally complex albums I’ve ever heard. Musical in two layers: instrumentation and vocal.
It’s vocally arranged within an inch of its life: a master class in subtlety that in and of itself quietly lurks in the shadow of the lead (D’Angelo) and the band.
Fascinatingly enough, a common complaint about the album is the vocal performance. Or rather the lack of enunciation in lieu of somewhat overindulgent vocals. But I posit this: the somewhat mumbling of the lyrics (lyrics that are rich in their own complexity) was done intentionally. Many might have already guessed as much, but instead of digging past their own perplexity (or simple dislike of the deceptively lackadaisical vocal performance), they chose to bemoan what is actually a chillingly musical choice. All one has to do to realize that the warbled lyrics were by design is ask themselves why D'Angelo intentionally crafted his multi-tracked voice to do the same. D'Angelo used no fewer than three vocal tracks, overdubbing and harmonizing with himself. Each layer utilized to pull off this musical prank.
Muffling, slurring and, yes, mumbling his own brilliant lyrics was actually a work of musical genius. All this leads to the two songs that nearly broke me: “Send It On” and “The Root.”
“Send It On” is a sol-drenched love note to jazz and classic soul. The deep opening and earthy groove of Miles Davis like coffee blended with drops of Al Green's sweet and decadent mocha. The song manages to blend legato and staccato in a way not unlike the melody of instruments. Horns for the tightly wound harmonic crescendos (unison harmonies for the subtle moments reminiscent of smooth saxophone). Shortening words to mimic the snap of a snare. This is music on two levels: band, then vocal.
For instance, in the ending vamp, D let’s out a soulful grunt, which is followed closely by a monosyllabic harmonized vocal flare not unlike an organ accenting the vocalist’s ad lib during a hymn.
If we dissect now the vocal work, we notice a series of notes that are dangerously close together, chords that make use of seconds and fifths to create an oddly satisfying dissonance (the chorus mimicking a brass section’s tightness and almost tinny sound profile).
“The Root” strolls in on a bass riff and snare pop like an old hustler doing a Cadillac stroll down the street to the corner store. It's a marvel of layering that has less to do with the vocal than it does carrying on the album's conceit of voodoo. D’Angelo beginning a lyric, only for two, then three iterations of the singer's voice to repeat in a staggered round/ronde that is similar to the chanting of a voodoo ceremony (voices that echo and overlap to suspend current reality and send both chanter and listener to a more spiritually rooted plane).
Listening to Voodoo for probably the thousandth time last year filled me up with music at a time when it felt like music had left me. My entire being swelled with an overwhelming feeling of fullness: full of music, and the realization that with his sophomore album, we were experiencing a master of his craft in D’Angelo.
This is the definition of "soul." Voodoo is that rare moment when all time stops and one becomes suspended in the moment. Hanging on each note like waiting for the next breath. Every track on this album illustrated a feeling, took the ambiguity of an emotion and made it solid. Something to hold onto and keep sacred. It's a marvel of lyrical openness and exceptional composition, clear, crisp and filled with so much groove it's too precise in the feeling of funk and soul to be by accident (though if stories of these legendary sessions at Electric Lady studios are to be believed, much of the album's creation was exactly that).
Every ounce of the album was a buildup to...something. An emotional downpour that once it reached "The Root" the levy was already leaking. "Send It On" broke the dam and sent this human spirit spiraling in the white water. It is in this moment that Voodoo brought tears to my eyes.