Amen! (D’Angelo’s Back)
CONTINUED (PAGE 5 OF 5)
So when will he release his new album? D can’t say for sure. His managers and his label are pushing hard for September, before the Grammy deadline. But nobody’s banking on it. Sounding like a man who’s all too familiar with D-time, Tom Corson, RCA’s president and COO, says simply, “This year would be nice.” In mid-April, D and his band are back in the studio, this time in Los Angeles, supposedly adding the final touches. But everything hinges on D letting the music go.
“I’m driven by the masters that came before me that I admire—the Yodas,” D tells me, using the term he and Questlove have coined for their heroes. He tells me of a music teacher who told him that when classical composers like Beethoven made music, “people didn’t understand it, and it got bad reviews,” D says, recalling how his teacher said Beethoven responded: “He’s like, ‘I don’t make music for you. I make music for the ages.’ ”
That’s all well and good, Chris Rock says—as long as D actually releases his music. “You’ve got to earn it, man,” he tells me, adding that the only reason fans aren’t disappointed by Jeff Buckley, the celebrated singer-songwriter who recorded just one album, is that he drowned. “Body of work, babe. It’s all body of work at the end of the day. I mean, the only way D’s going to be a great artist with the output he has now is if he dies.”
I can’t help but think about J Dilla, whose death was the pivot, D says, on which his comeback began to turn. Dilla was the ultimate underground artist—prolific beyond compare, a legend in the hip-hop world. When he died, he’d made so much music with so many people—from De La Soul to Busta Rhymes to A Tribe Called Quest—that his legacy was secure. For all of D’Angelo’s otherworldly talent, for all the passions he distills and reflects when he’s in front of an audience, for all his perceived connections to Beethoven and Michelangelo and Marvin, and yes, to Jesus himself, the same cannot yet be said for him. Can Dilla, the overachiever, spur the underachiever to reach his true potential?
Back in the Times Square recording studio, I tell D I want to read to him something from a fan who posted recently on Prince.org, a site frequented by devotees of all things funky. The fan is worried by reports that D is trimming down, he writes, because of the havoc the “Untitled” video wrought: “While it’s cool that dude is getting in better shape, I hope he’s not trying to get back to the way other people picture him or want him to be. Dude just needs to get his head straight.”
I look up from the page. “Is your head straight?” I ask.
“Straight,” D’Angelo says, his eyes locked on mine. “Yes, my head is straight.” Just because you’re black, he adds, doesn’t mean you have to look or sound a certain way, “or, you know, act ignorant or what have you, whatever the fucking gatekeepers have us doing because they think that that’s the formula to make money. And a lot of motherfuckers, they just fall right into line.” D has a term for artists like this: “minstrelsy.” If he’s learned nothing, he’s learned this: He’s no minstrel.
I ask him about Internet reports that the new album is called James River, after the Virginia waterway whose swampy banks provided hidden refuge for escaped slaves. No, that’s no longer the title, D says, but he doesn’t say what is. I let slip that I’ve heard about another new song he’s written called “Back.” I just want to go back, baby / Back to the way it was, it goes. And then: I know you’re wondering where I’ve been / Wondering ’bout the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen.
I tell him I’m impressed that he’s addressing his body directly, using wry lyrics to confront and reclaim this difficult chapter of his life. He murmurs a thank you, but he looks a little unsettled. “Wow,” he says, when I ask if the song will appear on the album. “I don’t know if that’s going to make it.”
Later, when I reach Janis Gaye, Marvin’s second wife—and a longtime D’Angelo fan—I tell her about the dreams D had of Marvin, and she isn’t surprised. Her own children dreamed of Marvin on the night he was killed, and D is just a few years older. “Marvin is a protector, and I’m sure there was something in Marvin’s spirit that saw something in D’Angelo’s spirit,” Janis says. I tell her about Rock’s stern admonition that D needs to step it up, and she agrees. She even has a suggestion: “He should go to Marvin’s Room, the studio that Marvin built,” she says of the famed studio on Sunset Boulevard where Gaye recorded many of his hits. “Go in and take his fifty songs. Not to sound kooky or out there, but Marvin will help him to choose.”