Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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D'Angelo and the Vanguard [extended]

  • Brown Sugar [EMI, 1995] A-
  • Voodoo [Virgin, 2000] A-
  • Black Messiah [RCA, 2014] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

D'Angelo: Brown Sugar [EMI, 1995]
After getting religion about a precursor of songless r&b, I thought I'd revisit its modern wellspring, and wasn't surprised to have warmed to it--D'Angelo's concentration is formidable, his groove complex yet primal. But because it's bass-driven rather than voice-led, Brown Sugar is less subtle than Al Green Is Love, and less sociable too: D'Angelo, who was leading a great band throughthese songs by 2000, laid down all the instruments on four tracks and on two others brought in only co-producer Bob Power's guitar, which loosens things up nicely, though not like the string section on "Cruisin'"--a tune that originated with a pretty darn good songwriter named Smokey. A-

D'Angelo: Voodoo [Virgin, 2000]
Forget the Prince and Marvin stuff--this deeply brave and pretentious record signifies like a cross between lesser Tricky and Sly's Riot Goin' On. Accepting his deficiencies in the tune-and-hook department, he leads from strength, a feel for bass more disquieting than bootalicious. His lyrical focus is the social as spiritual, which he ponders honestly and seriously and sometimes bravely, as on the unjudgmental, unsentimental "The Line," in which a young black man lays out the reasons he's ready to die--leaving the listener to wonder why the fuck he should have to think about it. So the pecs and pubes of the video are a feint, one of many; although the music can be sexy and funky and fun and woman-centered, that's just part of the sonic concept. Which is unique. Play it five years from now, when the follow-up comes out, and you'll recognize it instantly. A-

Black Messiah [RCA, 2014]
Comparisons to Sly's There's a Riot Goin' On pertain--like that end-of-year funk bombshell, this music is disruptive, a little forbidding. But a-b the two albums and recall or discover how much cleaner music was supposed to sound in 1971. Proudly antidigital though he may be, D'Angelo knows damn well that he's competing in a funk soundscape epitomized for the nonce by the dense computerized pastiche of Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy--a soundscape in which gearhead murk and gorgeous complexity coexist a tweak or two apart. His response, almost as far from Voodoo as Riot was from Stand!, is a thick, sui generis jazz-funk in which Questlove and Pino Palladino avant around with the kind of bottom they already change up as flexibly as anyone in the pop sphere while guitarist Isaiah Sharkey and horn maestro Roy Hargrove interject from the jazz side. Instrumentally, it's more virtuosic, more surprising, more conceptual, and more physical than Riot's "Africa" jams. But D'Angelo isn't just being conceptual when he buries his murmurs, moans, pleas, regrets, and imprecations so deep in the mix that the words are indecipherable, because not a song here stands as tall as "Family Affair," "Just Like a Baby," or "You Caught Me Smilin'." Which is to say that the talk about how profoundly D'Angelo articulates his racial awareness and romantic struggle is mostly guff, although both are certainly present. I'm very glad this album finally came. But I also very much hope there are more. Because it's distinctly possible that he has more to tell us. A-