With a slim oeuvre for which my colleagues have made grand claims, D’Angelo has used writer’s block as a kind of incubator: for thirteen years he watched as Brown Sugar and Voodoo matured into R&B touchstones, unsullied by mediocre contractual follow-ups. At the turn of the century I preferred other Soulquarian releases like Mama’s Gun and Things Fall Apart, not to mention his fellow mononym, the crucially Sade-besotted Maxwell; what they lacked in accretive density they compensated with forthrightness. A dumb binary, I realized later, especially when the accretive density was as tasty as devil’s pie without the addictive qualities.
Speaking of “Devil’s Pie” — it inspires D’Angelo’s ambivalence. Not lyrically — he’s an example of why submission to the eddies of his bass lines and the silt of his harmonies produces useful tensions. The moment in that track when hand claps joins the scratching and granitic groove laid down by Questlove as D’Angelo repeats the title hook reveals the potency of devil’s pie as an aphrodisiac, mephitic and deadly. 2014’s Black Messiahreached new heights of studio craft: the stentorian piano of “Another Life”; yet another tumbling opening of a groove in “The Charade”; the sitar as bridge joining East and West, engaged in diplomatic back channel communications with Roy Hargrove; the mumbled imprecations meant as prayers but, despite their unguent qualities, sharpened with menace.
Still, I reach for Brown Sugar most in 2017—the impishness with which he scrubs a metaphor of Mick Jagger’s eros-inspired sensationalism.
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