Holy Ghost Music

The gospel according to D'Angelo

Much has been made of preacher's son Michael D'Angelo Archer's roots in his Richmond, Virginia, Pentecostal church. On his long-awaited sophomore effort, Voodoo, D'Angelo himself makes a great deal of the connections between the charismatics of the church and the ancient channeling arts of West Africa. He even uses this vision as a platform for castigating many of his R&B and hip-hop contemporaries in the album's extensive liner notes. Indeed he gets away with this self-righteousness because the record has a deep, earnest funkiness that's rare even in the most critically acclaimed retro soul of our time.

But of at least equal importance, D'Angelo's search for the soul of his music has led him to the most unifying secret of American music. This “holy ghost” music also connects him to the integrated birth of the Pentecostal Church at the turn of the last century. It was a time when black-white relations in the United States were at their nadir, lynchings at an all-time high, and, yet, a movement of poor white and black Southerners erupted out of an intense shared experience with what was believed to be the Holy Ghost. The birth of this new church brought the races together around a musical experience at once sacred and profane. This spiritual contradiction to racism in this nation foreshadowed the rise of this music's secular form, rock and roll, half a century later.

So while listeners can't help but hear D'Angelo's affection for Prince in his simmering funk balladry, it is important to consider that D'Angelo does more than imitate his most direct influence; rather, he takes the synthesis Prince handed us back to his own roots, roots born from the same soil as the greatest American music. After all, while comparisons with Sly Stone and Marvin Gaye also are inescapable, the music D'Angelo most often calls to mind is the early Seventies sound of Al Green. On those records future reverend Green's incredible voice all but takes second stage to the throbbing, yet artfully controlled bass of Leroy Hodges and drums of Al Jackson and Howard Grimes. The intensity of Green's albums broils out of and maintains an uneasy quiet, and D'Angelo's new music works much the same way, his growls and falsettos grounded by the quaking earth below. Although this minimalist approach to soul fits nicely with the contemporary funk being churned out by the likes of Aaliyah and Toni Braxton and the best hip-hop of the Wu-Tang Clan and even Eightball and MJG, its roots go straight back to that church, where foot-stomping, hand-clapping, rumbling organ, and rattling tambourine are enough to awaken and subdue any wandering spirit that may alight.

D'Angelo mixes the best of church and states of the heart
photo by Thierry Legoues
D'Angelo mixes the best of church and states of the heart

While D'Angelo's first album featured much the same synthesis of musical styles, 1995's Brown Sugar was less focused, celebrating love and getting high and taking only one dark turn at a moment of betrayal. After the birth of his son and his breakup with the child's mother (singer and sometime-collaborator Angie Stone), Voodoo carries a deepened sense of joy and pain. The D'Angelo who debuted in 1995 certainly wasn't half-steppin' with his enormous talents, but after a baptism by fire (and, it would be safe to assume, a good deal of self-doubt), the D'Angelo of 2000 takes each step with more assurance and a stronger sense of direction. Songs such as “Greatdayndamornin'” are about despair so deep it takes a leap of faith simply to wait for the sun to rise.

No wonder D'Angelo's live shows have been called “seductive,” “magical,” and “hypnotic.” With a ten-piece band rumbling through this Voodoo's dark conjuring before climaxing with the first album's homicidal “Sh*t, Damn, Motherf*cker,” this is a show with demons in its sights. But this music also is about fighting down those demons, and “Chicken Grease,” “Jonz in My Bonz,” and “Lady” aim for nothing short of redemption.

 
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