Michael Archer grew up not knowing Jesus’ name. To some black Pentecostals, God is known as Yahweh and the son of God as Yahshua or Yahushua. “We would go to other churches and people would be saying ‘Jesus,’ ” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Who are they talking about?’ ” The piano, on the other hand, was something he understood innately. At 4, he taught himself to play Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.”
When he was 5, his parents split, and the boys went to live with their father. “Mom was struggling,” he says of his mother, then a legal secretary. Michael played the organ at his father’s church and helped lead the choir. When he was 9, however, his dad “was battling his own demons,” and the boys went to live with their mom for good. After that, “me and my father really didn’t have much contact with each other.”
In those years, Michael was drawn to his maternal grandfather’s Refuge Assembly of Yahweh, up in the mountains outside Richmond. The region had been a hub of slave trading before the Civil War, with Richmond being a place where 300,000 Africans and their descendants were sold down the James River. Then and now, church was a place where loss could be mourned, pain salved. But what attracted Michael was the way fire and brimstone infused the music. In the temple, Michael saw his elder brother Rodney speak in tongues; he witnessed healings and exorcisms. At one Friday-night revival, he noticed a woman in a pew a few rows up. She was acting strange—tugging at her clothes, foaming at the mouth, ripping at the Bible. “She was possessed. E-vil,” he says, breaking the word in two. “It was a long, hot, steamy night, and that demon disrupted it.” He recalls his grandfather and the other ministers praying hard as the woman crawled on all fours, screamed, and ran outside to jump on the hoods of cars. “The demon was raising holy hell, and my grandfather came outside. He had big hands, and he didn’t say a word. He just—” D’Angelo raises his palm to me—”and she falls out. That’s it. End of story.”
Already Michael was developing into the musical connoisseur that D’Angelo is today. His Uncle CC was a truck driver who moonlighted as a DJ, and he had a huge record collection. This was the beginning of what D now calls “going to school”—delving deep into jazz, soul, rock, and gospel history, from Mahalia Jackson to Band of Gypsys, from the Meters to Miles Davis to Donald Byrd, from Sam Cooke to Otis Redding, from Donny Hathaway to Curtis Mayfield to Sly Stone to Marvin Gaye. When Michael was 8, Gaye had just made a comeback with “Sexual Healing” and won two Grammys. “Everybody was talking about him,” D’Angelo recalls. “Everybody.” So just after Sunday sermon on April Fool’s Day 1984, when Michael learned Gaye was dead at 44—shot by his own father—he was crushed.
That night, D’Angelo had the first of many dreams about Gaye. It was in black and white and took place at Hitsville U.S.A., Motown’s Detroit headquarters. D was playing piano while a bunch of famous Motown stars milled about, waiting for Gaye. “When he finally showed up, he was young, very handsome, the thin Marvin. Clean-shaven. Very debonair,” he told an interviewer back in 2000. “He came straight to me and shook my hand and looked me dead in the eyes, and he said, ‘Very nice to meet you.’& He grabbed my hand and wouldn’t let go.”
After that, whenever Gaye’s music came on the radio, Michael felt a chill. The opening bars to “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” made him get up and leave the room. It was as if the power in Gaye’s music had been linked, somehow, to his tragic end. “I would be petrified,” he says—so petrified that his mother took him to a therapist. But the dreams of Gaye—himself a preacher’s son—didn’t go away until Michael turned 19. That was the year he changed his name to a moniker inspired by Michelangelo. That was also the year that his demo tape found its way into the hands of Gary Harris, then an A&R executive at EMI Music.
At their first meeting, D played a little Al Green on the piano and appeared to be just another “young kid with a lot of mystery.” Earlier, Harris had seen a video taken at a talent show when D was 8. “He’s playing the chords from ‘Thriller,’ and then he starts singing: It’s close to midnight. Something evil’s lurkin’ in the dark. He was killing it,” Harris recalls. “We used to call it ‘getting the spirit’ in church. He’s the rarest of breeds: a genuine live attraction.”
The church warned D’Angelo against secular music. “I got that speech so many times,” he says. ” ‘Don’t go do the devil’s music,’ blah blah blah.” But his grandmother encouraged him to use his gifts as he saw fit. Not long after Harris signed him, D dreamed his last Marvin dream, this one in color. “I was following him as a grown man,” he tells me. “He was a bit heavier, and he had the beard. He was naked, and all I could see was his back and that cap he used to wear all the time. And he got into this whirlpool Jacuzzi with his wife and his daughter and his little son, and that’s when he turns around and looks at me. And he goes, ‘I know you’re wondering why you keep dreaming about me.’ And I woke up.”
As D’Angelo caught fire in the mid-’90s, the star-making machinery worked overtime to mold him into a bankable headliner. Stone remembers an event in Manhattan in September 1996 that was billed as Giorgio Armani’s tribute to D’Angelo. Stone—thirteen years older than D—was three months pregnant with their son. They headed to the event together in a limo, but as they neared the venue where D was going to perform, it suddenly pulled over. “He was asked to get into another car, where he would be escorted by Vivica Fox,” Stone says, her voice breaking slightly. The lissome Fox had just appeared with Will Smith in the blockbuster Independence Day. “It was a Hollywood moment. They wanted a trophy girl. I had to walk in behind them to flashing cameras. It started the wheels turning of what was yet to come.”
The A-list was circling now, wanting a taste of D’s authentic flavor. When Madonna turned 39, she asked him to sing “Happy Birthday” at her party. One press report had her sitting on his lap and French-kissing him. In fact, two sources say that ultimately D rebuffed her advances at another gathering not long after. At that event, the sources say, Madonna walked over and told a woman sitting next to D, “I think you’re in my seat.” The woman got up. Madonna sat down and told him, “I’d like to know what you’re thinking.” To which D replied, “I’m thinking you’re rude.”
But the lure of fame was constant, the temptations everywhere. While his label hoped for a quick follow-up album, D retreated, citing writer’s block. He would later say that the birth of his first child, Michael Jr., got him back on track, but Voodoo—partially written with Stone—would be a full five years in the making. D fathered a daughter, now 12, with another woman, and has a third child, now almost 2.
Three weeks after its January 2000 debut, Voodoo hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Some early reviews were tepid (only later would Rolling Stone list it among its 500 best albums of all time), but it sold more than a million units in five weeks (and 700,000 since). The record would eventually win two Grammys, for best R&B album and best male R&B vocal performance for “Untitled.” But as D began to fall apart, the video would be the only thing many fans remembered. “The video was the line of demarcation,” says Harris. “It sent him spinning out of control.”