More than a decade since his last full-length release, D’Angelo still has the ability to get people excited. For years, the music industry, the Internet, rabid fans, critics, and casual listeners alike have waited in anticipation, hoping and praying the singer would add to his stellar catalog with an album that satisfies their longing. Thus far, no dice. D’Angelo has teased and teased, but to date no album has materialized.
While the rumors keep floating that it’s on its way, and Questlove continues to tweet that he’s working on it and they’re close to completion, the buzz continues to grow. Yesterday, a D’Angelo cover of the grunge band Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” popped up on the web and produced a fresh round of excitement for James River, the title of what is to be D’Angelo’s third album. The track is eight years old, according to Questlove, a demo that will not be included on the (supposedly) upcoming album, but its discovery and the hype it caused show there is still demand for the vanguard of the neo-soul movement.
Neo-soul is a tag typically rejected by the artists to whom it’s attached, as they reject labels that may limit them artistically or feel the prefix “neo” is unnecessary. But generally neo-soul is understood to be music heavily influenced by the classic soul artists of the past, including Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, and others. At the time, it emerged, for some, as an alternative to the saccharine ballads coming from the Babyface camp and the hip-hop-leaning R&B thugs embodied by artists like R. Kelly and Jodeci.
D’Angelo set it off in 1995 with the release of his debut album Brown Sugar. Maxwell followed him the next year with Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. Erykah Badu was next with her debut Baduizm in 1997, while The Fugees star Lauryn Hill exploded on the scene with her debut solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998. In the span of a few years, neo-soul became a “thing.”
Their success set the stage for the likes of Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, India.Arie, Macy Gray, Angie Stone, Anthony Hamilton, Alicia Keys, and more to be able to garner mainstream attention and in a few cases wildly profitable careers.
And as neo-soul grew in popularity, the progenitors seemed to fade. Maxwell left the scene after 2001’s Now, not to be heard from again until the release of 2009’s BLACKsummers’night, the first in a planned trilogy that currently stands alone.
Badu has certainly kept busy, releasing more music and touring more extensively than her counterparts, but has also distanced herself from a portion of her fanbase through her eccentric personality.
None has been more enigmatic than D’Angelo. Where Badu and Maxwell have released new material since the neo-soul heyday, D’Angelo has only floated the idea that new music is on the way. Where Lauryn Hill has come out of her self-imposed exile to perform (even when she arrives hours late to shows), D’Angelo hasn’t been spotted in the vicinity of a stage for the entirety of the last decade nor the beginning of this one. His narrative may make for an excellent read in a biography years from now, but right now it’s viewed as a waste of potential for perhaps the best talent to emerge from the ‘90s neo-soul movement.
D’Angelo’s sophomore effort, 2000’s Voodoo, stands (alongside Badu’s Mama’s Gun released the same year) as the pinnacle of artistic achievement for the neo-soul sub-genre. But since this work, his biggest musical contributions have been a duet with Raphael Saadiq and providing hooks for Snoop Dogg and Common.
Meanwhile, he was arrested for a DUI, possession of marijuana, and possession of a controlled substance in January 2005. In 2007 he received a nine-month suspended jail sentence for charges of reckless driving and driving with a suspended license stemming from a 2005 accident in which he was critically injured. He was arrested again in 2010 and charged with soliciting a female undercover police officer for oral sex.
D’Angelo has struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol and aside from impeding on his musical progress, it has taken a toll on him physically. Once chiseled and reluctant to wear a shirt, when photos of the singer surfaced during the height of his legal woes, he appeared to have ballooned to the point of being nearly unrecognizable.
Whatever demons have plagued him, one hopes that D’Angelo has conquered them and is truly on the path to wellness. He is scheduled to appear live at a few highly anticipated concerts in Europe at the end of this month. It would also be nice if he were finding himself inside a studio and finally laying down music to show the world he is indeed the great soul man he once seemed destined to become.