Amen! (D’Angelo’s Back)
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Paul Hunter, the director hired to make the video, says his work was misunderstood: “Most people think the ‘Untitled’ video was about sex, but my direction was completely opposite of that. It was about his grandmother’s cooking.”
I’ve stopped by Hunter’s office in Culver City, California, to hear how D’Angelo came to be filmed bare-chested (but for a gold cross on a chain around his neck), wearing only a pair of precariously low-slung pajama bottoms, looking like a wolf circling a bitch in heat. Illuminated from every angle, he spins very slowly as the camera fetishizes his every ripple and drop of sweat. I’ve imagined a lot of things that inspired the song’s rousing lyrics (Love to make you wet / In between your thighs cause / I love when it comes inside of you), but collard greens weren’t among them. Hunter is quick to explain that he, like D, was raised in the Pentecostal church.
“When I used to sing in the choir,” Hunter says, “after the rehearsal, you go in to eat. I remembered seeing the preacher looking at a lady’s skirt one week and then, the next Sunday, talking about how fornication is wrong.” Such mixed messages about the pleasures of the flesh were intertwined with the pleasures of the palate—part of the same sensual stew. “So I was like, ‘Think of your grandmother’s greens, how it smelled in the kitchen. What did the yams and fried chicken taste like? That’s what I want you to express.’ ”
The video was the brainchild of co-director Dominique Trenier, D’s manager, whose goal—some still see it as a stroke of genius—was to turn his client into a sex god. D’Angelo had been working hard with his trainer and was cut down to muscle and bone. Never in his life had D been this taut and virile, and Trenier seized the opportunity to create a true crossover artist without losing his loyal base. Initially, Hunter says, to capture the heat they were hoping for, “we were going to build sort of a box for a girl to come and mess with him. We all said, ‘Well, how can we push it?’ ”
But when the shoot began at a New York City soundstage, the fluffer turned out to be unnecessary. D’s memory was all he needed to bring it home. The video may have looked like foreplay, but it was actually about family, Hunter insists—about intimacy. Later, when I tell D’Angelo this, he says, “It’s so true: We talked about the Holy Ghost and the church before that take. The veil is the nudity and the sexuality. But what they’re really getting is the spirit.”
The shoot took six hours, and it changed D’s life. Trenier got his wish: Thanks to D’Angelo’s luscious physicality, albums started flying off the shelves. But the trouble began right away, at the start of the Voodoo tour in L.A. “It was a week of warm-up gigs at House of Blues just to kick off the tour, draw some attention, break in the band,” says Alan Leeds, D’s tour manager then and now. “And from the beginning, it’s ‘Take it off!’ ”
Questlove, the tour’s bandleader, was alarmed. “We thought, okay, we’re going to build the perfect art machine, and people are going to love and appreciate it,” he says. “And then by mid-tour it just became, what can we do to stop the ‘Take it off’ stuff?”
D’Angelo felt tortured, Questlove says, by the pressure to give the audience what it wanted. Worried that he didn’t look as cut as he did in the video, he’d delay shows to do stomach crunches. He’d often give in, peeling off his shirt, but he resented being reduced to that. Wasn’t he an artist? Couldn’t the
audience hear the power of his music and value him for that? He would explode, Questlove recalls, and throw things. Sometimes he’d have to be coaxed not to cancel shows altogether.
When I ask D about this, he downplays his suffering. Watching him pull hard on another Newport, I realize that he finds it far easier to confess his addictions than his insecurities about his corporeal self. Self-destructing with a coke spoon—while ill-advised—has a badass edge. Fretting over what Questlove has called “some Kate Moss shit” seems anything but manly. If given the chance, he tells me, he would absolutely shoot the video again. But he does admit to feeling angry during the Voodoo tour.
“One time I got mad when a female threw money at me onstage, and that made me feel fucked-up, and I threw the money back at her,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m not a stripper.’ ” He was beginning to sense a darkness beckoning. He recalls a particular moment onstage at the North Sea Jazz festival in 2000. The band was in the middle of “Devil’s Pie,” his song about the spell fame casts upon the weak—Who am I to justify / All the evil in our eye / When I myself feel the high / From all that I despise—when he felt an ominous presence in the crowd. “That night I felt something that was like, whoa,” he tells me. E-vil.
On the last day of the eight-month tour, Questlove says D’Angelo told him, “Yo, man, I cannot wait until this fucking tour is over. I’m going to go in the woods, drink some hooch, grow a beard, and get fat.” Questlove thought he was joking. “I was like, ‘You’re a funny guy.’ And then it started to happen. That’s how much he wanted to distance himself.”
While the tour was a success, both critically and commercially, it left D broken. “When I got back home, yeah, it wasn’t that easy to just be,” he says. “I think that’s the thing that got me in a lot of trouble: me trying to just be Michael, the regular old me from back in the day, and me fighting that whole sex-symbol thing. You know: ‘Hey, I ain’t D’Angelo today. I’m just plain old Mike, and I just want to hang out with my boys and do what we used to do.’ But, damn, those days are fucking gone.”
It’s not that D wasn’t working, exactly. “I was in the studio,” he says. “But I was also partying a lot. A little too much.” He liked cocaine, he says, “because I could be a bit of an antisocial. It made me really open up and talk.” But the problem with doing coke, he says, is “you can drink like a fish and it don’t bother you. It was good in the beginning, but it got out of hand.” For the first time, he says, “people started to go, ‘Yo, man, you’ve got to get it together.’ ”
Executives at his then label, Virgin, were exasperated. Momentum is money in the music business, and D was squandering his. Sometime in the mid-2000s, Virgin and D’Angelo parted ways. Then D had a falling out with Questlove, who’d played a track off the album-in-progress on an Australian radio station—a cardinal sin in D’s eyes. Things had begun to unravel. In January 2005 a bloated, bleary-eyed D’Angelo was arrested in Richmond and charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana and driving while intoxicated. Trenier, horrified by the mug shot that appeared in press accounts, drove from New York City to Richmond to pick D up—then drove him to California so D wouldn’t have to be seen in public in an airport. Soon, D was in rehab at the Pasadena Recovery Center. But he wasn’t listening.
The near fatal Hummer accident came in mid-September of that year, after D had received a three-year suspended sentence on the cocaine charge. Still, he didn’t think he’d bottomed out. Only five or six months later, after J Dilla’s passing, would D finally reach out to Gary Harris, the man who’d first signed him. D told Harris he wanted to talk to Clapton, with whom he’d performed a few times. Harris tracked down a number. “I was like, ‘Yo, I need some help,’ ” D recalls telling Clapton, who founded the Crossroads treatment center in Antigua. D would be welcome there, Clapton said, but it would cost $40,000. Harris called a former boss of his: Irving Azoff, the famed personal manager, who didn’t know D but knew his work. Harris says Azoff agreed to cut a check.
Getting D to Antigua was an odyssey in itself. First off, he had neither a driver’s license nor a passport—a challenge when trying to board an international flight. Second, while he’d begged for this intervention, his commitment to it waxed and waned. When Harris first arrived at D’s Richmond mini-mansion on a Sunday in late April 2006, the kitchen was littered with empty alcohol bottles, and D was a mess. “What should have taken a day took four days,” Harris says, recounting their journey from Richmond to Charlotte to Puerto Rico, where “it took me two days to get him out of the hotel.” Even once D was admitted to Crossroads, Harris says, “he was calling everybody he knew to get a ticket out.” At his first two rehab centers, D had been able to evade and outsmart the counselors. At Crossroads, he was forced to deal. “It was like sobriety boot camp,” he says. “They are up in your shit.”
After his month in Antigua, it still took eighteen months for D to ink a new deal, this one with J Records (which would become RCA) in late 2007. But even then, in D’s world, nothing happens quickly.
Everyone around him knows about D-time, a pace so slow that it could test even the most patient saint. Over the next few years, there were creative stops and starts. There were also setbacks. On March 6, 2010, D was arrested and charged with solicitation after offering a female undercover police officer $40 for a blow job in Manhattan’s West Village. He reportedly had $12,000 in cash in his Range Rover. Asked to explain, he says, “It was just me making a stupid decision, a wrong turn, on the wrong night.” He adds, “I’m not the role-model motherfucker. Look at all the shit that I’ve been in.”