D’Angelo’s ‘Brown Sugar’ Laid the Blueprint for the Neo-Soul Movement
Released in 1995, D’Angelo’s debut album, Brown Sugar, is an album that birthed neo-soul and changed the direction of R&B forever.
Similar to many vocalists and musicians, D’Angelo, the son and grandson of preachers, got his start performing Gospel.
“When I was going to church they used to say: ‘Don’t go up there for no form or fashion,'” D’Angelo recalled in a 2014 interview. “I guess what that means is you’re up there singing for the Lord, so don’t try to be cute. He don’t care about that. He just wanna feel the spirit moving through you.”
Born Michael Eugene Archer, in Richmond, Virginia on February 11, 1974, D’Angelo was an insular creative from as early as the age of three, when his elder brother, Luther, discovered him playing the house piano, displaying an innate mastery of the keys beyond his years. When he entered his teenage years, D’Angelo formed his own band, Michael Archer and Precise, molding his talent through shows at family reunions and local talent showcases. However, it wouldn’t be until the group traveled to New York City to compete at the Amateur Night competition at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater in 1991 that he fully realized his powers as a showman. Initially placing fourth — and being booed offstage while singing Peabo Bryon’s, “Feel the Fire” — D’Angelo redeemed himself the following year, performing R&B singer Johnny Gill’s “Rub You the Right Way.” He walked away with a first-place finish in three consecutive weeks.”When they said I won, I went off,” he said, speaking about his first win. “We got back on the bus and went right back to Richmond…I stayed up the whole time. I was smoking cigarettes… and I was lookin’ out the window just thinkin’ about everything. I got a check for $500, bought a four-track and started writing. I wanted to make an album.”
Invigorated by the experience. D’Angelo decided to drop out of high school and immerse himself in music, writing and recording songs — many of which would appear on his debut album — from the comfort of his bedroom in his mother’s house. During the process, D’Angelo joined a rap group from Chesterfield, Virginia known as I.D.U., which stood for Intelligent, Deadly, but Unique. The group traveled to New York City for a meeting with EMI Music; the executives at EMI passed on signing I.D.U. but were interested in taking on D’Angelo as a solo act. Jocelyn Cooper, founder of Midnight Songs, signed D’Angelo to a publishing deal in 1991, and two years later, A&R-man Gary Harris inked him to a record contract, following a now-legendary three-hour audition, during which D’Angelo wowed executives with a riveting piano recital.
Soon after, Kedar Massenbrug, who had previously managed Brooklyn rap group Stetsasonic — and who would discover acts like Erykah Badu and Eric Benet years later — assumed the role of manager, based on the buzz D’Angelo’s demo had built. In 1994, D’Angelo earned his first notable credit, co-writing and co-producing the song “U Will Know” for the all-male R&B supergroup Black Men United, which featured star vocalists Brian McKnight, Usher, R. Kelly, Boyz II Men, Raphael Saadiq, and Gerald Levert. Included on the soundtrack to the film Jason’s Lyric, “U Will Know” peaked at No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was accompanied by a music video, in which D’Angelo made a cameo as the group’s choir director. He also wrote and produced “Overjoyed,” a song from the Boys Choir of Harlem’s 1994 album, The Sound of Hope, further adding to the hype surrounding him.
On July 3, 1995, D’ Angelo released Brown Sugar, an album that birthed neo-soul and shifted the direction of R&B. In an age where many acts called upon a team of producers to help craft an album, D’Angelo presented himself as the ultimate R&B auteur, writing and producing the majority of the material on the album, save for a few choice exceptions, among them the album’s title-track and lead single.
Co-written and co-produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, “Brown Sugar,” a thinly vieled ode to the allure of marijuana, was mistaken by many to be the typical lady-friendly groove. Bringing to mind smokey jazz clubs and cigar lounges, “Brown Sugar” gradually caught on as a hit, peaking at No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Instantly lulling you into a sedated head-bop with its opener, Brown Sugar begins to embark on its musical journey, beginning with the optimistic thumper “Alright,” the most contemporary, upbeat offering, in terms of its sonic structure. Co-produced by Bob Power, “Alright” finds D’Angelo leveling with his significant other under the guise that their love will prevail. On “Jonz in my Bonz,” the Virginia native’s fiendish sexual tendencies are revealed, as he purrs the refrain, “Said I got a jonz in my bonz/I said this feeling that I got won’t leave me ‘lone,” over flighty keys and measured kicks and snares. Written by D’Angelo and his ex-girlfriend Angie Stone, “Jonz in my Bonz” is one of the selections from Brown Sugar that serves as a pillar of the neo-soul template, as it pairs hip, street-wise terms and urban ideology with lush, jazz-inspired instrumentation.
The ultimate student of his craft, D’Angelo has often been compared to greats like Prince, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Donny Hathaway. But the one artist who’s parallels to his own are inescapable is Marvin Gaye, whom he channels on various instances throughout Brown Sugar. While listing all of the above as influences, his relationship with Gaye is a haunting one. In a 2000 interview with Questlove for Vibe, he talked about what he was doing on April 1, 1984, the day Gaye was shot and killed by his father.
“I knew about “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing,” but I hadn’t really gotten into him. But after that day, I couldn’t listen to his shit. It wasn’t a conscious effort; I just couldn’t listen to it. If his song came on in the car, I would throw temper tantrums to my mom: “Cut if off! Cut it off! …. yo, one night, I had a nightmare about him. And when I woke up from the dream I turned on the radio and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was on. I was going crazy.”
D’Angelo’s affinity for the musical stylings of his childhood rears its head on the cuts “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine,” one of the compositions he penned back home in Richmond, and “Cruisin‘,” his rendition of Smokey Robinson’s 1979 hit of the same name. The former is in the vein of Gaye’s lustful ballads, while the latter gives its predecessor a run for its money and puts a modern spin on one of the signature hits of the Motown era.
His experience in the Pentecostal church informs Brown Sugar, with deep cuts “When We Get By” and “Higher” both bringing to mind church processionals with their Gospel-influenced instrumentation and layered choruses. D’Angelo’s prowess as a songwriter shines brightest with the profane offering “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” which brings listeners into the mindstate of man on the verge of committing a crime of passion. Asking, “Why are you sleepin’ with my woman,” after discovering his best friend in bed with his wife, D’Angelo avenges the ultimate betrayal with bloodshed, resulting in a masterful conceptual number that pairs the passionate with the morbid.
Among Brown Sugar‘s handful of hits, the one that has stood the test of time is “Lady,” which helped cement D’Angelo in the pantheon of great, male R&B soloists of his era. Co-written by Raphael Saadiq, the song was initially intended for Tony! Toni! Toné!, but was ultimately passed on to D’Angelo during a visit to Saadiq’s house during the making of the album. From the instant the opening claps and guitars make way for the booming bassline, you’re enthralled with the instrumentation, which, when matched with D’Angelo and Saadiq’s penmanship, is a perfect match.
Released as the third single from the album, the song peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was certified gold, the most successful release from Brown Sugar and the record that helped crystalize D’Angelo as one of the leading men in R&B. Brown Sugar was a slow-burner out the gate, debuting at No. 6 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart, before later peaking at No. 4 on the chart. Building steam on the strength of “Brown Sugar” and “Cruisin’,” the album slowly creeped towards gold status, while the massive success of “Lady” on urban and contemporary radio outlets, helped push it to platinum certification. Hitting the shelves at a time when R&B was in a state of flux, Brown Sugar was considered a return to the genre’s roots. While traditionalists like Tony! Toni! Tone! and Mint Condition were among the few acts keeping organic funk and soul in their records through instrumentation, the genre had become dominated by crooners finding success singing over synth-heavy, digitized backdrops, with cookie-cutter lyrics that lacked the depth of compositions of yesteryear.
Also, Sean “Puffy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records had infiltrated the genre, lending his Midas, albeit sample-based, touch to remixes by many of the genre’s biggest acts, leaving purists like D’Angelo and others vexed. “Well… I’d say that right now there is a new consciousness among black kids about the possibilities of instrumentation,” he said, weeks before he would release his classic Voodoo album in 2000. “And maybe I had something to do with that. People like Puffy and those other artists who rely on samples… I just don’t see that sticking around much longer. Puffy says he’s bringing back those old guys to the kids, but he knows he ain’t doing it for that reason. That’s just some alibi he cooked up. He knows half those kids he sells to will think he came up with what Maurice White [of Earth, Wind & Fire] first thought of. I say you gotta keep it real, man.”
Nonetheless, as a result of Brown Sugar‘s success, neo-soul, the term coined by Kedar Massenburg to describe the album and D’Angelo’s music as a whole, became the hot new trend in Black music, with a number of talented vocalists and musicians emerging in its wake. Singer Erykah Badu, another Massenburg discovery, who’s own debut solo effort, Baduizm, would drop at the top of 1997, followed “Brown Sugar’s” neo-soul suit with “On & On,” which blazed up the charts. Other names that came to be associated with neo-soul included Maxwell, Eric Benet, and Lauryn Hill — all of whom dropped landmark debuts in the subsequent years following Brown Sugar‘s release. However, according to D’Angelo himself, neo-soul was nothing more than a marketing tactic, which he shunned on numerous occasions in the press and media. “Once you put a name on something, you put it in a box,” he said. “You want to be in a position where you can grow as an artist. You never want to be told, ‘You’re a neo-soul artist. Why don’t you do neo-soul?’ I never claimed that. I never claimed neo-soul. When I came out I said I make Black music.”
As the touring and media obligations surrounding Brown Sugar began to die down, D’Angelo would begin to build his reputation as a recluse, largely shunning his newfound position of stardom. He split with manager Kedar Massenburg, who had elevated to high-ranking executive positions at both Universal Records and Motown Records following the success of Brown Sugar. And aside from recording cover versions of classic songs for various soundtracks — from Get on the Bus to High School High to Scream 2 — D’Angelo was largely off the radar before returning nearly five years later with his sophomore effort, Voodoo.
“After Brown Sugar, I lost my enthusiasm to do all this,” he once admitted. “I coulda done without goin’ to 7-Eleven at three o’clock to get a pack of cigarettes and find yourself swarmed, signin’ autographs. I had to reiterate why I was doin’ that in the first place, and the reason was the love for the music. I was gettin’ jaded, lookin’ at what go on in the business. But, I had to say, even if I didn’t do this, I’d still be fuckin’ with the music. So I’m cursed, and I’m gon’ be cursed till the day I die. So this is what I’m gon’ do.”
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?