From Voodoo singles to Black Messiah deep cuts, these are the 20 best songs D’Angelo has made.
Like other neo-soul artists of the mid-90’s — including Maxwell, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saddiq and Lauryn Hill — the legacy of D’Angelo shifted the traditional scope of R&B as the subgenre reached the forefront of mainstream appeal. 1995’s Brown Sugar had showcased his potential, but it was 2000’s Voodoo that propelled him to stardom. Alongside revolutionary neo-soul and hip-hop fusion crew Soulquarians, D’Angelo took shelter in Electric Lady Studios in 1996 to embark on four years of artistic progression. With right-hand production partner Questlove and a rotational tribe of dedicated collaborators, what came of the Voodoo sessions was a full throttle of soulful poignancy that continues to resonate today.
But the success of the album — due largely to the music video for hit single “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” — ultimately took a toll on D’Angelo, and it would be 14 years until the musician released a new album, Black Messiah. Since then, the only new music he’s released is a song titled “Unshaken,” which was made for the 2018 western action-adventure game Red Dead Redemption 2.
However, there have been reports of a new album in the works. Still, D’Angelo’s presence lingers, his three albums so intricate and rich that people continue to revisit them. So, in honor of the work he’s made thus far, as well as the 20th anniversary of Voodoo, Okayplayer celebrates the saga of D’Angelo in 20 of his best tracks.
20. “Jonz in My Bonz” (1995)
With a simple hook, “Jonz in My Bonz” is possibly the least complex of D’Angelo’s catalog. But the song fit in easily with the neo-soul explosion of the mid-’90s. Featured on his R&B-redefining 1995 debut, Brown Sugar, the track had D’Angelo take the reins on production while singer-songwriter (and then-companion) Angie Stone offered an assisting pen and vocals. As a duo, their soulful magic was akin to Ashford & Simpson. But “Jonz in My Bonz” was especially notable for its watery minimalism, a swaggering coolness that was interwoven within the seams of Brown Sugar.
19. “Chicken Grease” (2000)
Perhaps it was John Mayer who said it best when, in 2017, he attributed one of his favorite bass lines to “Chicken Grease.” This came courtesy of bassist Pino Palladino, known for his smooth precision, which made him beloved amongst The Soulquarians. D’Angelo won the song in a trade-off with Common (the Chicago rapper received “Geto Heaven Part Two” in exchange). It’s the track’s church-going improvisation that made D’Angelo the rightful recipient.
18. “The Charade” (2014)
Honing in on the Black experience, D’Angelo was unguarded when venting his frustrations on police brutality, and being a voice for his generation on his comeback album, Black Messiah. In an interview with Rolling Stone, D’Angelo reflected on his creation of the album, remarking that musical influence was crucial in overcoming political disarray. This was especially true for “The Charade,” a demonstration against the hushing of Black bodies, in which D’Angelo sings, “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’stead we only got outlined in chalk.”
17. “Africa” (2000)
As the final song on Voodoo, “Africa” was a cross between D’Angelo relishing in the birth of his son and Prince’s “I Wonder U” — sitting within harmonious balance. Reaching the motherland of his descendants, and with a partnering drum by Voodoo co-pilot Questlove, “Africa” was a testament to D’Angelo’s worldly aptitude.
16. “Prayer” (2014)
Over a crisp, industrial warp, D’Angelo rebukes the devil in a near-possessive trance on “Prayer.” One of the most experimental cuts on Black Messiah, “Prayer’ subtly pays homage to producer J Dilla, taking a cue from his innovative drum programming. While the track’s tone can be unsettling to fresh ears, D’Angelo shakes off temptation with his eyes set on reaching the promised land.
15. Lauryn Hill’s “Nothing Even Matters” (1998)
Wanting a signature song that was akin to duets by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, Lauryn Hill tagged D’Angelo for “Nothing Even Matters.” D’Angelo trekked to New Jersey to record alongside Hill, resulting in one of the more brighter songs about intimacy and love on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Ultimately, the pair received a nomination for Best R&B Performance By A Duo or Group at the 1998 Grammys for the song. And although they weren’t the recipients of the award, Hill still made history, with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill winning Album of the Year, the first time a hip-hop album had ever received the award.
14. “Spanish Joint” (2000)
Like “Africa,” “Spanish Joint” marked D’Angelo’s genre-blending adaptation, the salsa-infused track driven by the late Roy Hargrove’s smooth trumpet lines, Giovanni Hidalgo’s dynamic congas, and Charlie Hunter’s memorable eight-string guitar breakdown. Though D’Angelo calls upon rain, his worries are waltzed away by the track’s Latin electrification.
13. “Lady” (1995)
Co-written by fellow singer-songwriter Raphael Saadiq, “Lady” is actually D’Angelo’s biggest hit to date, reaching number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. With timeless charm and a cameo-filled remix video that introduced Erykah Badu pre-Baduizm, “Lady” became a staple for weddings and house parties alike with its undeniable refrain: “I can tell they’re looking at us.”
12. “Sugah Daddy” (2014)
The 2012 BET Awards was incomplete without a set from D’Angelo. During the performance, he teased “Sugah Daddy,” which he featured on Black Messiah merely two years later. A Holy Spirit-driven funk bit — with reverence to his Voodoo era — “Sugah Daddy” finds D’Angelo singing about the object of his desires being “raw and uncut” on top of a deep groove. “Sugah Daddy” offered us a taste of D’Angelo’s highly-anticipated return, and ushered in his contemporary era of soul.
11. “The Line” (2000)
Possibly foreshadowing his impending hiatus post-Voodoo, “The Line” was a groove with a guitar lead by frequent collaborator Raphael Saddiq. Facing adversity, D’Angelo affirms his grappling with hopelessness and even considers his fate, as captured in the following line: “I’m gonna put my finger on the trigger/I’m gonna pull it, and we gon’ see, what the deal.” While artists are heralded for maintaining their composure in the public eye, D’Angelo was unapologetic with baring truth to his anxieties.
10. “Smooth” (1995)
With a pre-Love Jones coffee shop vibe, “Smooth” is similar to “Jonz in my Bonz” for its minimalism and infectious repetition. With a hand in co-writing from his brother, Luther Archer, and production from esteemed, long-time A Tribe Called Quest collaborator Bob Power, D’Angelo is unfazed by the trickling piano, staying attuned with the song’s title.
9. “Left & Right” (2000)
The story goes like this: Q-Tip was replaced by Method Man and Redman, and the rest was history. While Q-Tip’s verse was whisked away by a unanimous vote, “Left & Right” was notable for its memorable guitar sequence and Meth and Red’s brash rhymes, referencing Joanie Loves Chachi and Saturday Night Fever while staying on par with D’Angelo’s raunchy fervency.
8. “Really Love” (2014)
Much to D’Angelo’s dismay, Questlove overzealously played a snippet of “Really Love” for an Australian radio station in 2007. Once their differences were resolved, “Really Love” was reintroduced to the masses, sampling Curtis Mayfield’s “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” with a Spanish introduction by Gina Figueroa. Despite its premature release, “Really Love” went on to strike literal gold, winning Best R&B song at the 2016 Grammy Awards.
7. “Send It On” (2000)
A manifestation of pure soul, “Send it On” was a transcendent voyage into D’Angelo unmasking his devout faith, aptly sampling “Sea of Tranquility” by Kool & the Gang. The first song recorded for Voodoo, the song found D’Angelo reveling in his unbreakable familial foundation, accompanied by the airy and soothing trumpet of Roy Hargrove.
6. “Be Here” (2002)
The second single from Raphael Saddiq’s solo debut album, Instant Vintage, “Be Here” was a natural link-up between D’Angelo and Saddiq, both agreeing that they were more than just “good dick and some money.” The two glided between their respective parts and the track’s hallmark violin, making for a song worthy of being nominated for Best R&B Song and Best Urban/Alternative Performance at the 2003 Grammy Awards. Most recently, the track was covered at Saddiq’s surprise NPR Tiny Desk Concert performance, with Lucky Daye effortlessly covering D’Angelo’s part.
5. “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” (2000)
It was the music video that stopped the world. Arguably D’Angelo’s most popular song, “How Does it Feel” not only gave Voodoo an unforeseen jolt, but D’Angelo’s shirtless (and hip-teasing) vulnerability ushered in a legion of female fans. As pressures of becoming a sex icon and having a long-lasting impact began to haunt D’Angelo, the song received high acclaim for its tempestuous, falsetto-driven homage to Prince, winning Best Male R&B Vocal Performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards.
4. “One Mo’Gin” (2000)
With a playful 2000 Vibe Magazine interview with dream hampton at the beginning of the song, “One Mo’Gin” was D’Angelo’s admission to being transfixed by love and loss. With stirring, gospel-like conviction, the track is D’Angelo’s modern take on blues, drunken off somberness as he sings, “I miss your smile, your mouth, your laughter, baby/Never bumped into your kind before or after.”
3. “Til it’s Done (Tutu)” (2014)
On “Til it’s Done (Tutu),” D’Angelo reflected on an inescapable existential crisis: “Question ain’t do we have resources to rebuild?”/It’s ‘do we have the will?'” Closely following the 1972 Eddie Kendricks deep cut “My People…Hold On,” the 2014 track forged a new hope amidst a restless era, the track’s notable funk guitar trudging on until the track fades into silence.
2. “The Root” (2000)
Much like the psychological control of 2014’s “Prayer,” D’Angelo falls under the spell of a lethal lover in “The Root,” alluding to hoodoo rootwork dismantling his power (“In the name of love and war took my shield and sword/From the pit of the bottom, that knows no floor/Like the rain to the dirt, from the vine to the wine/From the Alpha to creation, to the end of time”). D’Angelo repeats the chorus almost to no end until the message is felt.
1. “Brown Sugar” (1995)
The titular opener of his 1995 debut album was the awakening of neo-soul, reaching number five on the Billboard U.S. R&B chart. Co-written by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, “Brown Sugar” captured how love can often feel like the after effect of smoking some weed, the fusion of cool, laidback instrumentation and D’Angelo’s smooth voice making for an intoxicating sound that D’Angelo fans weren’t able to shake. On the D’Angelo Live! Mixtape compilation, you might even hear a young Anthony Hamilton singing “Brown Sugar” as part of the D’Angelo’s Voodoo World Tour backing band, The Soultronics.
Jaelani Turner-Williams is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, contributing monthly to the city’s entertainment guide (614) Magazine. She has also written for the likes of Bust Magazine, Bandcamp Daily, Vinyl Me, Please, Vibe Magazine, AFROPUNK and more. Inspired by Columbus writing veterans Hanif Abdurraqib and Scott Woods, Jaelani focuses strongly on cultural pieces, especially within the realm of music and social criticism. You can follow her @hernameisjae