Amen! (D’Angelo’s Back)
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Questlove and D were back in touch now, but the drummer admits he kept D’Angelo at arm’s length. For a while it seemed they’d only talk after someone died. Michael Jackson’s passing had them on the phone in 2009. Then, in 2011, just hours after Questlove missed a call from Amy Winehouse on Skype, she, too, exited the stage. “D’s the first person I called,” Questlove recalls. “And I was just honest, like, ‘Look, man, I’m sorry. I know you’re thinking I’m avoiding you like the plague.’ I just said plain and simple, ‘Man, there was a period in which it seemed like you were hell-bent on following the footsteps of our idols, and the one thing you have yet to follow them in was death.’ ” He told D that if he’d gotten that news, it would have destroyed him. “That was probably the most emotional man-to-man talk that D and I had ever had.”
Such honesty was only possible, Questlove says, because D’Angelo was finally getting his act together. He’d kicked his bad habits—well, most of them. “Any person who’s dealt with substance abuse, it’s an ongoing thing,” D tells me. “That’s the mantra—one day at a time—right? So you’re going to have good days and bad days, but for the most part, I have a grip on it.” He feels the forces of good are on his side now. “I don’t know why it didn’t happen sooner. It’s just the way Yahweh ordained it.”
His newfound discipline is evident in the way he has thrown himself into studying a new instrument, practicing for five and six hours a day. “The one benefit of this eleven-year sabbatical was he used 10,000 Gladwellian hours to master the guitar,” says Questlove, who compares D to Frank Zappa. “He can play the shit out of it, and I don’t mean no Lil Wayne shit.”
Alan Leeds, the tour manager, senses a conscious decision on D’s part to push beyond the beefcake. “I wonder if that isn’t partially a way to take the attention away from that Chippendales shit, because when you’re standing up playing guitar, there’s a little less attention to what you’re wearing and whether it’s on or off and having to choreograph your moves,” says Leeds, who’s previously worked with James Brown and Prince. “It prevents you from having to calculate that shit.”
Still, D is back in the gym, and it’s not just vanity that’s tugging at him. He knows physical presence is key to any live performance. And though he’s still finer than fine, with swagger to spare, he’s no longer the chiseled Adonis from the “Untitled” video. Eating little more than fish and green apples, D’s been working to trim down his five-foot-seven frame, which just a few months ago had topped 300 pounds. In January, on the eve of his European tour, his managers told me he still had another twenty-five pounds to go. Which is why when I boarded the plane for Sweden, I wasn’t surprised to see D’s personal trainer—Mark Jenkins, the same one who got him into underwear-model shape twelve years ago—a few rows up.
When he finally takes the stage (“In a minute!” he teases the audience from the wings. “In a minute!”), he sports a black leather trench coat that hits his black pants mid-thigh and a big-brimmed black hat. He calls this look Chocolate Rock. His hair is arranged in two-strand twists, and silver crosses hang on chains that bump against his chest. Also around his neck is the strap of his black custom Minarik Diablo guitar, named for its devilish horns.
He steps into the spotlight, the guitar slung low, his face aglow. If you could somehow access the voltage in the air, you could turn on all the lights in Scandinavia. First, the strains of an old song, “Playa Playa,” cut through the din. Then a Roberta Flack cover—”Feel Like Makin’ Love”—and then, seamlessly, a bluesy new tune, “Ain’t That Easy,” whose lyrics acknowledge, I’ve been away so long. The crowd catches the double meaning and roars as D peels off his jacket, revealing a black undershirt and sculpted arms. He glides through a mix of the old (“Chicken Grease,” “Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker,” a cover of Parliament’s “I’ve Been Watching You”) and the new (the infectious “Sugah Daddy,” and “The Charade,” a battle cry that D says “is telling the powers that be, ‘This is why we are justified in our stance’ “). Is he rusty? A little. But his presence grows with each song.
At one point, he grabs the hem of his wife-beater with both hands and tugs it up—one, two!—in time with the song. The brief reveal of his midsection is a flashback to the trying days of 2000, but it’s 2012 now, and the shirt stays on. When the band rips into its encore, “Brown Sugar,” it feels like D has rounded third base and is about to slide to safety. “Good God!” D yelps, kicking the mike stand away, then catching it with his foot before it flies into the audience. “Give my testimony!” he shouts, blowing kisses from the stage.
The show is a triumph, and soon Twitter and Facebook are on fire. He’s really back—no longer a specter. D’s band—he can’t decide on the name, but he’s considering the Spades—radiates happiness and exhaustion as they load onto the tour buses, nicknamed the Amistad I and II after the slave ship. The next night he fills a 1,600-capacity club in Copenhagen, and afterward the buses leave on D-time—a full twelve hours behind schedule. By the time they arrive at the hotel in Paris on Sunday, January 29, sound check for that night’s show is just three hours away. Still, despite having traveled 760 miles across Denmark, Germany, Belgium, and France, D and his trainer head directly to the tiny hotel gym. Coincidentally I’m there, too. I ask if D wants privacy. He does. As I head for the door, he steps wordlessly onto the treadmill, a weary man with many miles still to go.
But that night, at the tour’s first 5,000-seat arena, Le Zénith, D’Angelo is revived. Toward the end of the show, after a medley featuring snippets of the melodious, bumping “Jonz in My Bonz” and the gospel-fueled “Higher,” he hits a single percussive note on the piano that reverberates and fades away. Then he hits it again, and all of us in this cavernous hall begin to scream. It’s the beginning of “Untitled,” which he didn’t perform in Stockholm or Copenhagen—which he hasn’t played in public, not once, in a dozen years. After a few bars, D stops abruptly and stands up. The crowd cheers as he leans on one end of the piano, his chin in his hands, catching his breath. What happens next is the most soulful, palpable connection I’ve ever felt between an artist and an audience. As D sits back down and starts to play again, the audience spontaneously begins to sing. How does it feel?—four words coming from thousands of throats, urging him on. He responds gratefully, “Sing it again, sing it again.” And they do, loudly, prettily, right on tempo: How does it feel? “Oh, baby, long time,” he sings, “that this has been on my mind.” People are crying, swaying, raising up their hands. I’m one of them. It’s impossible not to be overcome as this sexy anthem, this source of so much pain, is transformed before us into a crucible of love. “Thank you so much,” he says, his fingers fluttering on the keys as he brings it home. Then he stands up, kisses both his hands, and opens his arms to the crowd. The blue lights go dark.
I’m reminded of something Angie Stone says about D. “D’Angelo is always going to be D’Angelo,” she tells me. “You can’t take too much away from the gift itself. I’m sure there’s still some fear there, because it’s been a long time out of the spotlight. And when all the spotlight he’d got lately has been negative, there’s a rebirth of some kind that needs to take place.” God willing, we’ve all just witnessed it.
Questlove tells me the same thing. “To get five songs out of him, we had to throw away at least twelve that I would give my left arm for,” he says. “I don’t mind that, because I literally feel he is the last pure African-American artist left.” Still, as weeks pass, Questlove admits, “My first fear was him not doing this at all. Now my new fear is, okay, the tour is over. Now what?”
For nearly a month, D mostly holes up in his apartment on the Upper West Side. Jenkins comes by regularly to sweat D in his private gym. He fasts for a few days, and the weight is coming off, but it seems D is headed back into his pre-tour cave. Only music persuades him to go out. Late in February, after he and D go to see Björk together, Questlove addresses a tweet to the Icelandic artist, saying, “amazing job last night. even d’angelo was mind blown & he leaves the house for NOBODY.”