A Masterful Discography: D'Angelo
D’Angelo is among my favourite singers in soul music. His hypnotic blend of ‘70s funk and soul with the occasional hip hop punch is irresistible. All three of his records are vastly different sonically, yet each one captures the same brilliance that makes D’Angelo’s brand of neo-soul so special. From the sombre tone of his voice to the lush builds of soulful instrumentation, he has never disappointed.
1. Brown Sugar (1995)
This record is perhaps D’Angelo’s most conventional, but that’s no insult. The very first track, “Brown Sugar”, establishes the gorgeous soundscape of the album. A meandering organ carries you into the track, taking you through a lush atmosphere of shimmering percussion, subtle bass, and mesmerising backing vocals on the hook which build on D’Angelo’s high voice and add yet another layer of beauty to the song. D’Angelo himself is a fantastic vocalist, flexing the strength of his voice with his high notes and offering a range of seductive verses in between. He has a cool and charming tone that makes every word as inviting as the instrumentation around him. On Brown Sugar, he sounds the most alive and energetic he would his whole career. A brilliant example is when he harmonises with his own voice and adds layer after layer of vocals on the climax of “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine”, making the song more gorgeous with each passing second. Overall, this is probably D’Angelo’s least diverse album, with the funky basslines and consistent jazz influence persisting across the whole record. The main highlight has to be “When We Get By”, where the single crash of a cymbal opens the song up, followed by a bubbling bassline and upbeat piano melody, supported by these subtle horns which come and go to inject new life into the track as the chorus commences. Brown Sugar is a masterpiece of a debut where D’Angelo’s lovestruck lyrics match perfectly with the comforting warmth of the instrumentation. He helped establish the neo-soul movement with this record, and with each subsequent album, he would reinvent the sound of soul.
2. Voodoo (2000)
For those who wanted D’Angelo to rekindle the same lavish, summery sound of Brown Sugar for his sophomore record, they may have been disappointed. Voodoo is a far more patient and atmospheric album than the last, with long stretches of subtle instrumentation where elements are slowly added in, making for even more satisfying crescendos when each song reaches its height. There may not be as many instantly-gratifying hooks to loop in the listener’s head for days, but the listener’s patience is rewarded, with so many songs building to these fantastic climaxes with far more powerful moments than anything from Brown Sugar. The most obvious example is the penultimate track, “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, where a groovy guitar solo transitions into the bridge, only for the track to come to a sudden halt. What follows is a passage of soulful ambience, with guitar strums and D’Angelo’s vocals coming and going in the waves of bass, until at last a spiralling harmony of voices rise up into one last chorus, louder and more impactful than any other moment on Voodoo. This album is more stripped back than Brown Sugar, with those moments of silence being purposeful, acting to make each instrument, verse, and chorus hit all the harder. However, the album does have its upbeat moments. For example, Voodoo has a relatively energetic start. The buttery bass supplied by producer DJ Premier on “Devil’s Pie” makes for an instant hit; rappers Method Man and Redman go back and forth at the start and end of “Left and Right”, even backing up D’Angelo on the chorus to create a wonderful mess of voices which sounds so catchy as they overlap. Even the emotional moments are more impactful, with “Send It On” being an obvious example, as D’Angelo dedicates the track to his newborn son with some of the most impassioned vocals he would ever deliver. What Voodoo lacks in radio-friendly hits, it makes up for in its satisfying build-ups, emotional highs, and plethora of genius production choices. The bass is thick, rippling under the buzz of guitars and triumphant horns which all give the record its spacious, funky sound. In my opinion, this is D’Angelo’s best work, but his third album is not far behind.
3. Black Messiah (2014)
After the success of Voodoo, D’Angelo’s life took a dark turn through the 2000s. Unhappy with his reputation as a sex symbol and heartbroken by the suicide of a close friend, he developed a drug and alcohol addiction. Cut off by his girlfriend and family, it wouldn’t be until 2005 when he checked himself into a rehab facility and began to turn things around. After a few guest appearances in the late 2000s on albums by Q-Tip, Common, and a few others, D’Angelo finally began performing new tracks in 2011 which would end up on 2014’s Black Messiah. The album is his most daring and innovative release to date, unlike any other neo-soul record. While the funk influence was notable on his earlier work, it’s even more prominent here, with the bass on Black Messiah transporting the listener back to the early ‘70s. The lyrics are deeply political – in stark contrast to the romantic verses of Brown Sugar and Voodoo – supported by a cinematic backing of crashing drums and roaring guitar. “1000 Deaths” is possibly D’Angelo’s most forward-thinking song, with a lyrical focus on war and the fight for peace, alluding to various leaders of the Black Panther movement. Where the track shines most is in the instrumentation. It starts with this loud, fluttering percussion flooding over the bass and distorted vocals from D’Angelo, and after a violent cymbal crash, the percussion takes a backseat as the chaotic vocals become clear. Soon, the percussion rises up and drowns his voice again for the next verse. The whole song sounds like the peaceful and chaotic moments of a storm, calming and intensifying in unpredictable ways. Not every song on the album is so experimental, with the understated tracks offering a much-needed moment to breathe between the abrasive highlights. “Sugah Daddy” starts off with a repetitive piano melody, allowing D’Angelo’s playful vocals to be on full show as subtle layers of guitar and horns are introduced. “Betray My Heart” follows a similar pattern, adding more elements every minute so that, by the end of the track, the fast-paced jazz banger sounds like a different song compared its stripped back opening. Every song is brimming with detail, evolving into these grandiose crescendos even more powerful than some of the finest highlights of Voodoo. The fourteen-year wait for Black Messiah was worth it, because to this day, there has been no neo-soul album quite as intricately layered and compelling as this album.
D’Angelo is the only artist I’ve heard who I can confidently say has a perfect discography. Even my favourite artists have their low points, but with D’Angelo, his worst song is still far from mediocre. Across three albums, he has reinvented himself each time and never failed to deliver a masterpiece. While I do hope he will one day release another album, with the amount of substance in detail in these three alone, I’m satisfied. D’Angelo is one of the greatest artists of all time, and his music will forever remain timeless.