Track by Track
1. James River
Yes it's here. Well, almost. Track 1, titled James River is 2 mins 59secs long but has no sound or music, not a squeak. You can listen to the whole thing but there’s nothing, nada, zip, not even a hidden message (“Don’t buy the ‘Yoda’ album” … or something like that). Is it a comment on the hype surrounding a 3rd album? Was the mic accidentally turned off? Or is D’Angelo just fucking with us.
2. Streets Of Gold
The music begins, but not with a groovy meandering intro like on Playa, Playa (from Voodoo), no Streets Of Gold starts straight on the one with a big arsed grinding fatback drum sound, gospel quartet guitar playing (Spanky Alford?), electric bass bottom and “cathedral” church organ. The clarity of production is the most surprising aspect, like D’Angelo has remastered his own original version. His multi-layered & hymn-like background choir confirms exactly what this sound is … gospel. It’s the next part that throws you, the vocals on the verses are twisted, sung slurred and hazy yet offset against the clear backing track … make that fucked up gospel (the dictionary definition of soul), then the chorus begins and clear as the emperors neo clothes in the Untitled video, D’angelo sings “I’m walkin …” his background harmonies kick in “… walkin’ on streets of pure gold … I’m not alone.” Ah, God’s with D’Angelo and with faith intact, he's satisfied that he needn't respond to the haters, all of whom judged him by the fact he wasn’t working. He can't see what all the fuss is about, after all before he creates it there's nothing. Silence. And to create it, it has to come from the soul. Don't they want his best? This shit takes as long as it takes. If he had released an album the year after he’d spent all of his time gigging, based on his need to make music about his life and experience, it probably would have been called The Voodoo Tour or maybe even something more specific like “I’m Getting More Shags Than Anthony Hamilton.” So difficult as it may have been for his hardcore to understand, he just hasn’t been ready. On www.soul24-7.com back in ‘04 there was a fan (THESOULBRUH) who vented his opinion – shared by the majority- when he posted 'When is that lazy ass bum gonna put out a new album? We need him back!' See that punter's life had been touched by D’angelo, but just like a jilted lover can’t understand the reason for being rejected nor can stop the hurt, he couldnt empathize. Does the slurred vocal represent the frustration felt by D’Angelo fans like that SOULBRUH geezer? Possibly. Then again he could have just been stoned when he recorded it. Whatever it’s a killer.
3. VA Strong
D’Angelo still can’t break up with his real mistress, he called her Brown Sugar in ’95, in 2000 it was all about her Spanish Joint swagger. And she's still lurking, damn near everyday of the noughties in Virginian Strong. In the process he unveils his new musical idea. DJ’s will call it breakbeat with synth playing in minor keys, but soulheads will recognize the furious handclap & drum style of Marvin Gaye’s T Plays It Cool. It works and guess what you’ll probably hear his contemporaries using the same formula in the years to come. Lyrically VA Strong references the dirty oasis missing at the beginning of the CD, “I was baptized in James River, she was stashed in a tug, I’m devoted to her majesty, love is still the drug”.
4. 1000 Deaths
First complete track to be “leaked” from the project 1000 Deaths is a killer slop jam, just as sloppy as Untitled & his cover of Prince’s She’s Always In My Hair (a blindingly dark, twisted, bitter version); productions that nearly had D’Angelo parting the seas of record retailer genrefication and segregation to lead black artists back from the “R&B/Hip Hop Section” to the promised land of the “General” category in record stores, alongside Prince & Jimi Hendrix. 1000 Deaths is a victorious return to the slop, confirming what D’Angelo’s very best music is all about - elements from his heroes combined to make a whole new thing. Of course you could say he’s stealing, but here’s a newsflash … so did the Beatles, Sly, Brian Wilson, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince all of those legends did their unfair share of “borrowing”. And just like those cats he knows how to expertly select the bits that’ll work in creating something new and original. Soulheads, Fonkers, Musos & Orgers will recognize the sounds: The Prince style Dirty Mind synth bass throb and grungy pornofunk of the Camille bootleg you bought on cassette from Plastic Surgery Records in ’87 (now a mobile phone shop); the menacing whistle and echo lifted from On The Corner by Miles Davis; Shuggie Otis psychedelic church organ playing from XL-30; Hendrix style (slight) return on wah wah; Sly’s PCP fuelled slap bass thump filling in for a pissed off, disgruntled and soon to be exiled Larry Graham, all of these elements employed over a groove that improves on the jam that was D’Angelo’s own Chicken Grease - finding the missing shit hot chord change, now displayed on 1000 Deaths and when that happens, not once, but twice via the malevolent chorus, you’re ready to go to war with him against whoever it is he’s singing about. As a 7 minute “song” it’s overall production is imperfect, but wonderfully so. Just like James Brown’s shit (but perfect) keyboard solo in Sex Machine, the keyboard intro finger-slip on War’s Why Cant We Be Friends which makes it sound like they're larking about or the engineer who accidentally "fucked up" What’s Going On by playing back the master with 2 alternate vocal takes present at the same time. It’s that beauty, the beautiful imperfections that go towards making the magic that can’t be programmed or contrived (it’s rumoured that during the Voodoo sessions Lenny Kravitz was invited to play over a J.Dilla rhythm but refused because he thought the beat was out of time). The punk ethos that was in rock and roll, doo wop, jazz and hip hop has been missing in black, soul and funk since the superior studio polish of the disco inferno spread circa 1973, and when that happened hip hop passed by and spat on the ashes of punk wop soul harmony. D’Angelo understands this and brings it back to the future; 1000 Deaths is a masterpiece and soon the slop nation will all be playing along with D’Angelo’s guitar solo on the Funk Ax (the funkier air guitar equivalent).
5. Love Wi' Chu'
Writhing, myriad, multi tracked voices ... punk wop. The rhythm section locked in (?uestlove & D?) with choppy, biting, fuzz guitar twangs (the late great Spanky Alford?) and the voices harmonizing weird groans i.e. four guys on a corner, in the shittier end of town, singing under an amber street light, with only one singer that can really wail. In this case it’s D’Angelo’s falsetto mantra “I was really love wi chu” that grabs you and works you over. Becoming more insistent each time you play it.
6. Changin' On
(Featuring Andre 3000)
We all said it … “yes we can.” For civil rights in the US and as an icon Barack Obama's place in history is already assured. But as for his place in the history of world politics, there’s still some work to do, because here we are, one year later, and the truth is that as yet, world politics and the US’s foreign policy hasn’t changed all that much: The detention centre at Guantanamo Bay is still open, more troops are being shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan than ever and the rumors that Bin Laden is actually dead have yet to be confirmed. Along with funk-lej Andre 3000, this song is simply saying “Obama, we believe in you mate … you’ve got to follow through on that change, lives are depending on it.” That’s the gist of Changin’ On – all over a brilliant Soulquarianstankadelic groove.
“I, I, I, eye-ahh can’t get over U” …. Possibly born out of a D and the Soultronics (?uestlove, Pino Palladino & Charlie Hunter) tradition of jamming a cover until something new takes shape, by the sound of it Prince’s Rebirth Of The Flesh might have been the template, meaning urban sunshine funk with hopscotch drum hits - ghetto music. Co-produced by Jeff Bhasker, he must be responsible for the shock & awe echo synth track. If ever there was a candidate crying out for a Prince collab it’s this nuvo gem … it’s not too late Archer - get Rogers on the dog & bone, put the release back by a month … there’s still time.
10. R&B Jesus
(featuring Amy Winehouse)
Rolling Stone scribe Robert Christgau memorably referred to D’Angelo as an "R&B Jesus” when he titled a Voodoo era feature for the mag. Comparing him to the star of the bible ensured the article got noticed. There will be a few raised eyebrows after D’Angelo named a song using the tagline, but this isn’t a Michael Jackson “I’m the king of pop” moment, D’Angelo along with featured artist Amy Winehouse find comfort in the ridiculousness of their own celebrity and talk about cause and effect. In the process enjoying each other’s company in a way addicts do at an NA session. The backdrop is a Little Richard influenced piano led groove, with D & Amy growling over a rock and roll beat, nicking the lyrics to the chorus from the Beatles The Ballad Of John & Yoko singing:
“Christ you know it ain’t easy
You know how hard it can be
The way things are goin’
They’re gonna crucify me.”
It’s possible (as there’s no credits) this was co-produced by Raphael Saadiq (ala Let’s Take A Walk). After 1000 Deaths it’s the best cut on the album and has been worth waiting 10 years for. Here’s a bit of sizzle: It’s rumored Kanye West felt he should be on the song and wanted to do a verse – however he was rejected on the grounds of him being a “jackass”.
Brings D’Angelo full circle, in a brilliant, somber, brooding, gurgling cauldron of a track ;10 is a new version of his own composition U Will Know (originally recorded by Black Men United) – the number in the title could relate to the years D’angelo had spent in the wilderness (just a guess) and whilst the original song displayed the cool charismatic maturity & wisdom that was about to propel D’angelo to the top of the world, this his first solo version, deconstructs the feel-good pop soul of the BMU version, giving lyrics such as: “That’s when I picked up the pieces and regained my name” a new stark poignancy and relevance. It's true, ask Tevin Campbell.
12. The Fury
The Fury could almost be “Part 3” of Shit, Damn, Motherfucker (the live version of the Brown Sugar track performed during the Voodoo Tour and nicknamed S,D,M Pt. 2 is considered one of greatest slop performances of all time by devotees) with its aggression, power & grit; attributes James Brown displayed in his prime. Unfortunately (and unnecessarily), since that era of black music (1968 to 1972), aggressive soul has been a distant memory. So all this time angry young men have had no choice but to buy a hip hop CD to get their emotional release (or fix). One of the most powerful feelings, musically, is frustration, particularly when it’s born out of a lack of love.You can feel isolated, in an enforced minority (it could be what D’Angelo meant on Devil’s Pie when he sang “Ain’t no justice, just us, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”). The true history of rock and roll, and soul was born out of that emotion. As a kid how do you deal with that? One way is to withdraw within your own immediate peers, ones you know have gone through exactly what you’re going through, another is to focus on the positive and try showing a strength and optimism in adversity even though the cards are unfairly stacked against you. But c'mon really? You’re a teenage kid, you don’t have that wisdom yet - fuck it you’re allowed to be angry. Later, what music do you listen to? In that moment only having either Save The Children or Love's In Need Of Love Today playing on your iPod just won’t always cut it. D’Angelo understands that aggression, that strength – and he can turn it on, musically & soulfully without the need for a rap collab. He’s one of the few that have turned it on since the industry told black music what it should be. Imagine Say It Loud I’m Black & I’m Proud or Dancing In The Street covered by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, with D’Angelo singin' his face off over some Joi Gilliam backgrounds.
13. The Haze/Greathazeindamorning
A true slopadelic masterpiece: nasty, yet mesmerizing and euphoric with a full horn section and a grungy lead guitarist (possibly lead-guitar-funk-lej, Fonksta) sitting together in the studio sharing a bucket of chicken. It works, expertly like Sly’s I Wanna Take You Higher with a vamp that simmers into a beautiful coda Greathazeindamorning, with its string arrangement, and delicate, yet funky percussion ala Fela Kuti, a moment of musical excellence that is like the sunrise in the early hours of an all-nighter, for those too wasted to sleep.
14. The Incredible & Unpredictable Michael Archer & The Soulquarians
Don’t be fooled by the title, this is a full on glorious cover version of Sly & The Family Stone’s Everybody Is A Star The only real faithful do-over on the album - Like you’re in a field in NY State, with a million brothers & sisters, all singin’ as one. Spot the guest vocals by Erykah Badu, Anthony Hamilton & Bilal.
15. Ebony Chile
“Pulled the wings off Gabriel and laughed as he fell,
She’s sweet & filthy and hot like hell,
VIP alone, tour shirt of the Stone’s
This broad got a jones for a guitar moan…
Oh chile, oh chile”
The sloppier D’Angelo gets the more he gets this slop shit out of his system. Easily the best anthemic slop track since Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy or maybe even Red Hot Mama by Funkadelic. They say Lenny Kravitz has been working on a funk album (Negrophilia) … he better hurry up.
Its socially conscious, digital funk; Devil’s Pie for 2010 with a gang mentality like War or the Ohio Players at their best. The lyrics on the bridge say it all: “Want some money? Just print some mo’, add a nought to the number on the market floor” before the unfollowtheleader chorus chant. He keeps singing about gold & triangles. Looks like D’s been watching “Loose Change” whilst chillin' at home.
17. Love Is Now In Session / The End
Gorgeous - originating from the 2007 leaked song Really Love (you didn’t hear it from ?uestlove ). For all the groundbreaking styles, love (except for in the music) has been absent for most of the record, similar to what you’d expect conceptually from a hip hop album. But this track is all about love, beginning with D’Angelo solo, sat at the keyboard serenading his listener, melancholy but devotional. The plodding backdrop of the original Really Love demo has been replaced by a delicate Fender Rhodes concerto, reminiscent in feel to Donny Hathaway’s I Love The Lord (He Heard My Cry). The final section, entitled The End reverts to the sultry guitar style of Voodoo’s Untitled but with chords more akin to Brown Sugar’s Higher and the religious, gospel style background perfectly clashes with the sensual lyrics about "closeness" & "ascending" - Pure soul music, think Amazing Grace meets Do Me Baby. As the music gently rises (joined now by gospel choir and band) to a crescendo, it’s the cigarette lighting moment . Savour it. Not just because this album almost didn’t make it but also because you never know when and if there will be another.
10 years is a short time to wait for a work of genius.