Amen! (D’Angelo’s Back)
He was once hailed as the next Marvin Gaye. Then, after his ripped body threatened to overshadow his music, he vanished into addiction. So what the hell was he doing recently singing his heart out in a Pentecostal church in Stockholm? And how are his abs? Amy Wallace witnessed D’Angelo’secstatic return to the stage—and hung out with the master of the sacred and the profane as he finishes his first album in a dozen years
The massive weight gain didn’t make Michael “D’Angelo” Archer see the darkness that was looming. Neither did the hermit-like isolation, the shattered friendships, the years wasted without a new record in sight, or even the car accident that nearly killed him. By the time he careened off a lonely stretch of road near Richmond, Virginia, in September 2005, hitting a fence and rolling his Hummer three times, he’d already failed two stints in rehab—including one where his counselor was Bob Forrest, the guy on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Bob had been cool, D’Angelo says, but his message of sobriety didn’t take. “I went in under a fake name so people wouldn’t know who I was, right?” D’Angelo tells me, in his first sit-down interview in twelve years. “So, you know, Michael never got treatment. It was this other character that was in there. And the moment I left, I went straight to the fucking liquor store.”
Which helps explain why, months later, high on cocaine and drunk off his ass, D’Angelo found himself ejected from his car on that balmy Virginia night, hurtling through the pitch-blackness, flying. When he hit the ground, he broke all the ribs on his left side—and dealt another blow to his foundering career. Once he’d been the heir apparent to the giants of soul: Marvin, Stevie, Prince. (The rock critic Robert Christgau was so transported by D’Angelo’s live show that he called him R&B Jesus.) But shortly after the wreck, discussions ended with several top music executives, including Clive Davis at J Records, who’d been considering signing him to a $3 million contract. Then D’Angelo’s manager told him he was done with him, too.
Still, D’Angelo couldn’t feel the bottom, even though it was right beneath him. He shows me how close, reaching toward the floor with his well-muscled left arm, the one inked with 23:4, for the Twenty-third Psalm. It’s early March, just a few weeks after he’s finished a sixteen-day mini-tour of Europe—his first live performances (not counting church) in more than a decade. We’re sitting on a black leather couch in a Manhattan recording studio on Forty-eighth Street off Broadway, a quiet sanctum despite its proximity to the circus of Times Square. Through a bank of windows is the room where he has recorded many songs for his (very) long-awaited third album. Dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, his hair in short tiny braids, D’Angelo looks good at 38—more solid than in his famously shirtless six-pack years, but clear-eyed and radiantly handsome. “I didn’t really think I had a problem like that,” he says, taking a hit off a Newport. “I felt like, you know, all I got to do is clean up and I’ll be fine. Just get in the studio and I’ll be fucking fine.”
What finally made him see, he says, was the passing of J Dilla, the revered hip-hop producer, on February 10, 2006. They’d just talked on the phone, D’Angelo says, when suddenly, J Dilla was gone at 32 after a long battle with lupus. It was like a blinding light had been switched on. Why did so many black artists die so young? He’d been haunted by this thought for years. Marvin. Jimi. Biggie. “I felt like I was going to be next. I ain’t bullshitting. I was scared then,” he says, recalling how shame engulfed him, preventing him from attending the funeral. “I was so fucked-up, I couldn’t go.”
Shame, guilt, repentance—D’Angelo knows them well. To say that he was raised religious doesn’t begin to capture it. He’s the son and the grandson of Pentecostal preachers. To D’Angelo, good and evil are not abstract concepts but tangible forces he reckons with every day. In his life and in his music, he has always felt the tension between the sacred and the profane, the darkness and the light.
“You know what they say about Lucifer, right, before he was cast out?” D’Angelo asks me now. “Every angel has their specialty, and his was praise. They say that he could play every instrument with one finger and that the music was just awesome. And he was exceptionally beautiful, Lucifer—as an angel, he was.”
But after he descended into hell, Lucifer was fearsome, he tells me. “There’s forces that are going on that I don’t think a lot of motherfuckers that make music today are aware of,” he says. “It’s deep. I’ve felt it. I’ve felt other forces pulling at me.” He stubs out his cigarette and leans toward me, taking my hand. “This is a very powerful medium that we are involved in,” he says gravely. “I learned at an early age that what we were doing in the choir was just as important as the preacher. It was a ministry in itself. We could stir the pot, you know? The stage is our pulpit, and you can use all of that energy and that music and the lights and the colors and the sound. But you know, you’ve got to be careful.”
Many would rise to praise him—not just critics, but his peers. Common, who calls D “one of the most impactful artists of our day and age,” remembers being in his car when “Lady” first came on the radio. “I was calling people and saying, ‘Have you heard this?’ ” he says. George Clinton, the godfather of P-Funk, compares D’s second album, Voodoo, to Gaye’s groundbreaking What’s Going On. And Eric Clapton’s reaction to hearing Voodoo was captured on video. “I can’t take much more,” he says, reeling. “Is it all like this? My God!”
But for many, it was skin, not just music, that helped D cross over from R&B maestro to mainstream sex object. In 2000 he released the smoldering video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel?),” an instant sensation that made fans everywhere, especially women, lose their lustful minds. It’s easy to find on YouTube: 26-year-old D’Angelo, naked from the hip bones up, staring straight into the camera, licking his lips and writhing in ecstasy. The video propelled him to superstardom—but it claimed its pound of flesh. D struggled mightily with the way his body threatened to overshadow his music. Then he all but disappeared.
“Black stardom is rough, dude,” Chris Rock tells me when I reach him to talk about D. “I always say Tom Hanks is an amazing actor and Denzel Washington is a god to his people. If you’re a black ballerina, you represent the race, and you have responsibilities that go beyond your art. How dare you just be excellent?”
After Brown Sugar went platinum, Rock put D’Angelo on The Chris Rock Show. Later, when D was mixing Voodoo, Rock hung out some in the studio. No surprise, then, that the first thing out of Rock’s mouth after “Hello” is a joyful “He’s back!” But he adds a sobering downbeat: “D’Angelo. Chris Tucker. Dave Chappelle. Lauryn Hill. They all hang out on the same island. The island of What Do We Do with All This Talent? It frustrates me.”
I tell Rock that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer for the Roots and one of D’s closest collaborators, has ticked off much the same list. Questlove has a theory about what happens to black genius—what he calls “a crazy psychological kind of stoppage that prevents them from following through. A sort of self-saboteur disorder.” Rock says he understands.
For a black star, Rock says, “there’s a lot of pressure just to be responsible for other people’s lives—to be the E. F. Hutton of your crew. Everything you say is magnified. I mean, street smarts only help you on the streets. Or maybe occasionally they
will help you in the boardroom, but boy, you wish you knew a little bit about accounting.” There is pressure to be original but also pressure to be commercial, to make money, to succeed. Sometimes the two run at cross-purposes.
I ask Questlove what he thinks has held D back. He says it’s not just the way “Untitled” turned D’Angelo into “the Naked Guy,” though of course that didn’t help. It’s something bigger. “We noticed early that all of the geniuses we admired have had maybe a ten-year run before death or, you know, the Poconos,” he says. “That renders D paralyzed. He said he fears the responsibility and the power that comes with it. But I think what he fears most is the isolation”—the kind that fame brings.
Questlove believes D’s “eleven-year freeze” must end, not just for the artist’s sake, but for the culture’s. “I’ve told him: He is literally holding the oxygen supply that music lovers breathe,” Questlove says. “At first, it was cute—’Oh, he’s bashful.’ But now he’s, like, selfish. I’m like, ‘Look, dude, we’re starving.’ When D starts singing, all is right with the world.”