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"A lot of motherfuckers are like me--they listen to old shit," says the 21-year-old soulster who calls himself D'Angelo. "That's my music, those are my jams. Because a lot of the new music that's coming out, it isn't cutting it on an artistic level. Some of the new songs will stand the test of time, but a lot of them won't."
Sentiments like this are commonplace these days: Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes is only one of the performers who have used less street-slang-heavy variations on this statement to justify aping the music of the past rather than creating the sounds of the future. But while Michael D'Angelo Archer's seductive and ingratiating debut album, Brown Sugar (on EMI), certainly recalls an earlier generation of rhythm and bluesers, from Sly and the Family Stone to the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, it isn't simply another exercise in retroactivity. Instead, the disc--which has been climbing sales charts on the strength of its title cut, a hit for the past four months--is a showcase for a vocalist/arranger/songwriter/producer who seems to understand hip-hop and Nineties soul harmonics as well as he does the works of Teddy Pendergrass. The man is a human sponge--he'll soak up anything in his path. And if he hasn't quite developed his own style yet, there's a damn good chance he will--and soon. As he puts it, "I don't want to be predictable, because I want people to listen to the noise. Because I'm going to come correct. I'm going to come with some shit."
D'Angelo was an early bloomer. The son of a Richmond, Virginia, preacher, he began playing the piano at age three. "My brother taught me how to play `Mary Had a Little Lamb,'" he remembers, "and before long, I was learning to play shit on my own, just fucking around. By the time I was four I was playing that Donna Summer song `Hot Stuff' and things like `Boogie Wonderland' and `Brick House.'"
By his reckoning, D'Angelo began to get serious about music around the time he turned sixteen, and within two years he'd composed the vast majority of the material on Brown Sugar. The lyrics reflect his youth; there's a moon-June-spoon quality to lines like "That's okay/Because you're my girl and I'm your man/And that's just fine" (from "Alright"). But the melodies and structures of efforts like "When We Get By" and "Higher" are confident and texturally complex. D'Angelo reveals that the R&B tone he achieved with these offerings came about as a side effect of hip-hop production schemes.
"I'd be looking for samples," he says. "And sometimes I'd listen to songs that somebody had already sampled, thinking that maybe I could hear something that they'd missed. And I'd end up listening to the whole thing and really digging it. That's when I discovered that hip-hop and old soul music aren't really all that different. People think they are, but the elements in them are really the same. And my realizing that had a lot to do with the way the record sounds."
Today D'Angelo concedes that there are some things on the platter he wouldn't mind changing: "If I was making it now, I'd make it less buttery than it is," he notes. But, he adds, "I'm glad I fought to keep the rawness. I wanted everything to sound as close to the original demos I made in Virginia as possible. And even though I know more studio techniques now, I'd still want to get that raw feel."
In spite of Brown Sugar's homemade charms, though, the disc as a whole exudes a smoothness that partially disguises some of its more unexpected elements. An example is the track "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker," named for a phrase that's D'Angelo's version of "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" ("It's something to say when you don't have shit to say," he explains). The tune is unlike the rest of Brown Sugar in that it avoids romantic themes in favor of a bloody tale of revenge committed by a character against his girlfriend and her lover. But what's more surprising is how few people have noticed. "A lot of them listen, but they don't even pick up that I'm cursing," D'Angelo says. "It goes over their heads because of the way I sing those words."
Despite (or perhaps because of) such misunderstandings, D'Angelo has been elected by popular acclamation as leader of a new wave of R&B talent that includes such performers as Omar and Joi. Previously established stars are already genuflecting before him: An appearance at New York City's Supper Club this summer was such a tough ticket that Prince and the members of TLC couldn't get in the door. Meanwhile, reviewers are routinely comparing him to the likes of Marvin Gaye. Even D'Angelo believes that he doesn't yet belong in such august company. "I just take it as a compliment, as people appreciating what I do, and leave it at that," he claims. "It's cool to even be mentioned like that, because those are my idols, my musical fathers--the people I've looked up to because of their musicianship, their artistry. So for someone to put their names and mine in the same breath is a big thing. But I try not to focus on that stuff in the papers. I'd rather pay attention to what I'm doing with the music.