As the 20-year anniversary approaches, we take an examination at D’Angelo’s Voodoo, an album that understood that reclaiming femininity did not mean shunning masculine aspects of sexuality.
How many albums have conveyed what love could feel like? From the embers of intimacy to the value implied in kinship, D’Angelo’s classic sophomore album, Voodoo, explores every shade of the sacred energy that can bind souls together. And, for all the diverging nuances of romance that Voodoo could exhibit, its portrayals of love were (and still are) universal truths, slated to latch into a listener’s inner self.
The record’s resolve of exploring love was forthright: its liner notes, written by poet Saul Williams, poised Voodoo as an hour-long ceremony expected to “serenade darkness.” “We speak of darkness as the unknown and the mysteries of the unseen,” the sleeve read. If romance was something unfamiliar to the listener, then Voodoo was the gateway into the mystique surrounding the different stages of human intimacy.
A successor to 1995 platinum-selling Brown Sugar, Voodoo, released on January 25th, 2000 and recorded in Electric Lady Studios, was shaped in sound and vision by the collective Soulquarians, of which D’Angelo and Questlove participated, but which also featured soul and hip-hop luminaries such as J Dilla, Common, and Erykah Badu. Beneath the message of love, Voodoo amalgamated strains of musical styles linked to the traditions of funk, soul, and hip-hop. From the sloppy bass-playing to the back phrasing rhythmic rimshots to the earthy production standards, D’Angelo’s sophomore record epitomized the sound of the blazing neo-soul movement. Voodoo, supported by grooves so deep sounding they swirled like sweet smoke from “burning spliffs and ever-burning candles,” is a remarkable musical journey through the history and future of soul.
Even for all its noteworthy features, Voodoo is best remembered for D’Angelo’s sexy appearance — naked and sly — in the music video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel?).” In it, a smoldering D’Angelo sings and flexes past the swooning point, the grooves in his body running as deep as the low-end bass in Voodoo’s central tracks. One can fathom why memories of Voodoo are mostly associated with his strikingly alluring chest rather than the messages of love or his devoted rendition of soul music. It was all about exposition — nothing else from the record had as much airtime and as much attention as the video for “Untitled.” It was Voodoo’s driver for success. D’Angelo became a sex symbol, an icon for black macho bravado and suggestive lovemaking invitations and, naturally, a superstar.
Many narratives have pondered on D’Angelo’s proper decline, which took effect after Voodoo’s tour. Women and men alike would attend the shows to flaunt and cry “Take your shirt off!” Even the media echoed the smiting effect of his figure. A May 2000 Rolling Stone article narrated D as “moving, strutting his macho-pimp stride, shoulders swaggering, exuding the masculinity of a champion prizefighter ready for combat.” This attention was too much for a sensitive soul. The shy son of a pentecostal preacher, D’Angelo could never cope with being a superstar. To his dismay, he was acclaimed for his body and not for his music. After touring for Voodoo, D’Angelo disappeared from the public eye. He rarely showed up, and when he did, music was the last issue to touch upon: he was caught up in a mugshot in 2005, overweight and frightened. It would be another 14 years before he would release Voodoo’s follow up, the future-funk protest album Black Messiah.
Fans of neo-soul would argue that this 15-year hiatus was the music video’s worst effect. Stardom had paid such a toll on D’Angelo’s mental health that listeners were bereft of new material by no-one else than the prodigal son of contemporary Black music. The video, so necessary to boost commercial viability prospects for Voodoo, had come with too much of a cost.
Twenty years later, there’s still ground to break from one of neo-soul’s masterpieces: no other record has since portrayed sexuality in a way so appealing, yet so respectful. This achievement, concealed behind beautiful bodies and superstar narratives, has been Voodoo‘s defining triumph: the inclusive representation of all sides of intimacy, love, sex and romance by embracing the feminine.
D’Angelo was able to create this state of expression, of inclusive intimacy and universal love, by embracing his own femininity, and embracing what’s feminine in soul music. The liner notes are exact: “If we are to exist as men in this new world many of us must learn to embrace and nurture that which is feminine with all of our hearts.” The Soulquarians, lauded for their artistry, have been recognized for providing a blueprint for any forthcoming statements of the neo-soul movement: they created a framework that was to be strengthened by the appeal of off-kilter rhythms, harmonic croons and provocative innuendos. Yet, in spite of scattered attention, and amidst a music landscape ravaged by slurs and sexist language, D’Angelo and the Soulquarian squad had also generated an even more important layout: a blueprint for a new masculinity. “The Aquarian Age is the Matriarchal Age. And we need a new language for a new age,” the liner notes read.
Contrary to the barbaric G-Funk tropes that swamped hip-hop, Voodoo understood that reclaiming femininity did not mean shunning masculine aspects of sexuality. While turn-of-the-century emcees would gloat in misogyny to explain arousal, Voodoo portrayed sexuality as both steamy and sympathetic. As the artwork implies, Voodoo’s posture is a posture of contemplation. Far away from statements that could be objectifying, D elevates the meaning of coveting in “Send It On:” “your inner view is all I desire,” he sings.
Questlove, the “co-pilot” during the project, accounted how Voodoo’s songs rose out of jams. “We would have endless jam sessions,” he wrote in his Okayplayer review. The Soulquarians would perform full Prince records for hours and, afterward, still jamming under the purple inertia, they would churn out original songs which would end up in the tracklisting. Voodoo was never a one-sided project: it materialized from conversations that musicians were having in a state of common understanding.
This is, ultimately, D’s defining statement: just as musicians were able to craft neo-soul’s most salient creation by reaching consensus, then sexuality, with it’s feminine and masculine hues, is also built from understanding. In this day and age, and even twenty years on from Voodoo’s original release, it seems necessary to reclaim that fragment of its legacy.
Luis Minvielle (b. 1994) is a Soulquarian wannabe and music writer. He has written for Bandcamp Daily and Okayplayer. He lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.