Comeback stories like D'Angelo's are as American as baseball and apple pie.
Last month, just before embarking on his coheadlining Liberation Tour alongside Mary J. Blige, the 38-year-old R&B singer played an Independence Day warm-up show in Los Angeles after an almost 12-year hiatus.
He was returning to the House of Blues stage, site of the troubled start of his last tour, which had left him defeated, resulting in a downward spiral (alcohol, drugs, near-fatal accident, rehab, soliciting an undercover cop) from which many observers figured he'd never recover. This felt like a particularly meaningful victory.
Earlier that week, D'Angelo had also played the BET Awards, a performance hailed by most in the media as fantastic. But there were a lot of flashing lights, and it was difficult to tell whether he still had it or everybody really desperately wanted to believe he still had it. In L.A., D'Angelo dispelled all doubt.
We heard the man before seeing him. And while he walked onstage singing, he made a beeline for his keyboard. It was partially obscured from sight, and that felt significant. The message: "Listen, don't leer at my body, and try to figure out if I look like I did in the 'Untitled (How Does It Feel)' video."
Of course, though, D'Angelo is still sexy, a fact that's never more apparent than when covering Parliament's "I've Been Watching You." He rumbles, "Can't take my eyes off you... From your lips to your hips... to your lips," as the corner of his mouth crinkles, eyes glitter, and hips wriggle. It's one of the best moments of any D'Angelo show.
Later, alone onstage with just his keyboard, the R&B crooner ran through snatches of his most famous songs: "Brown Sugar," "One Mo' Gin," "Send It On." And at last, we were able to evaluate his voice. A decade is a long time. A little rustiness should be expected. But there is none. It's pure and sweet. The urge to text a doubtful friend was irresistible. "He's still got it. Tearing it up."
But it wasn't until the band rejoined him that D'Angelo held church. Maybe it was choreographed (preachers do rehearse), but he was indefatigable. He screamed, he danced, and he faked the end of a song three, four, five times.
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It shouldn't have been a surprise. He grew up in the Pentecostal tradition watching people catch the Holy Ghost and pastors cast out unrighteous spirits. So he comes by it naturally.
D'Angelo has been gone a long time. And as much as we missed him, he missed us too.
"C'mon, children, let's get free!" he shouted.
Lead the way.