It's easy to be amazed by Voodoo, D'Angelo's long-anticipated followup to 1995's Brown Sugar. The album speaks to ancestors, both musical and historical, as experienced as on the prayer "Africa." And it does so in language that those ancestors would surely understand. You can imagine the spirits of a rich tradition all talking on this record -- there's a dreamy Stylistics vibe here, a Prince-inspired slow grind there, each on familiar terms with be-bop trumpets and talking drums, each equally at home in the church and on the street. D'Angelo's voice is strongest of all, particularly in the way his grooves locate the spiritual in the sensual, and vice versa. He's all about providing an antidote to the "playa" mentality of current rap and R&B -- for the way the whole culture seems to be lining up for a slice of "Devil's Pie" -- but his phrasing and rhymes are clearly in love with many of rap's virtues. His vocals got flow, and Voodoo breathes and whispers in rhythms.
So this is an amazing recording, even an important one. It will perhaps seem petty, then, to note that its whispers seduce but rarely satisfy. The album's sounds, though stunning, are less immediately distinctive than those of D'Angelo's female counterparts Lauryn Hill and Macy Gray, and the album feels less emotionally realized, generally, than the neo-soul of Hill, Gray, Angie Stone or Mary Blige. Voodoo's fusion elements are striking, but compared to the improvisations of Miles Davis and others, they come off canned and even a little lite-jazzy. And while D'Angelo (who will perform April 3 at the Paramount Theater) notes that his grooves "come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie and all artists formerly known as spirits," they next to never lead to the kind of sonic or spiritual release that those heroes routinely provided in something as basic as a memorable chorus. Every groove on Voodoo rocks you slowly and sweetly through the night, but come morning, you're surprised to find yourself alone and still aching for a climax to save your soul.