I was living in Brooklyn, New York, in my first solo apartment when I purchased the “Brown Sugar” CD. There used to be a certain vibe in BK. I lived around the block from where The Notorious BIG grew up, off Fulton Avenue. You can see it in the music video for “Juicy.” On the radio, R&B had taken a turn… hip-hop/rap had taken over the airwaves but instead of ‘native tongues’ and ‘boom-bap’ we were bombarded with hyper-capitalism or “bling.” When D’Angelo entered the scene he brought it all together.
The 2019 film, Devil’s Pie begins with a mid-1990s Soul Train clip in which the host asks D’Angelo about his sound that has a hip-hop foundation. The artist also lists Prince, Earth Wind & Fire, and other “old school” acts as his inspiration. Next, he performs the title track to “Brown Sugar.” The first album opened the door for the likes of Lauryn Hill, John Legend and Amy Winehouse. The impact of D’Angelo’s sound on contemporary R&B was hard to predict at the time but by the second album it was phenomenal.
By 2000, I had followed D’Angelo to Okayplayer and “Voodoo” dropped. After the success of the album, the artist stood on the edge of superstardom and the new music instantly separated him from his peers. It is here, in unchartered territory that we lost D’Angelo. Dutch filmmaker Carine Bijlsma followed him many years later, during the 2015 Second Coming tour. Bijlsma used snippets of archival footage (ex. Soul Train, studio sessions, rehearsals) intermixed with present day interviews with Questlove and tour manager, Alan Leeds.
I think D is still defined by some people as a dysfunctional person. The media played up the automobile accident, the couple of arrests but obviously there was something else going on…
Bassist Pino Palladino’s interview gets into what makes D’Angelo’s music stand apart from more commercial fare. D’Angelo talks about his father, a Pentecostal minister, not allowing him to play along with drums or a bass, so he used the piano to mimic the sounds of those instruments. Palladino, Questlove and others often bring up the influence of J Dilla, the late, legendary music producer who had a distinctive and hard to imitate style.
It goes back to J Dilla and its a rhythmic concept that uses the rhythm instruments (guitar, bass) to play behind the beat.
This seemingly “out of time” but on time performance is where the innovation lies. Improvisation in cultural production emphasizes the call-and-response participatory aspect of jazz, funk, and other creative forms that include polyrhythms and the repetition of motifs with variation. Neuroscientists discovered that improvisational conversations take root in the brain as a language. This is apparent in the way that performers respond to D’Angelo.
The specter of the “Untitled” music video follows the artist and his associates. It’s what allegedly triggered D’Angelo’s breakdown and led to his 14-year disappearance. It is suggested that he enjoyed all of the attention for a while, but once his live shows became dominated by calls for him to take his clothes off, the conflict between his strict church upbringing and his sex-symbol status became too much to deal with. In the film you can see how careful people are around him during the Second Coming tour.
Devil’s Pie explores how musicians deal with the glare of fame and the energy exchange between fans and artists. Music and live performance offers transcendence for some, while being overwhelming and intoxicating for others. D’Angelo talks about this at length in the film, as well as an interesting comment about religion and spirituality near the end that leaves us with some idea of what the artist was looking for, either in his music or someplace else.
I didn’t expect the film to dig in too deep but it did answer some questions for me about what transpired over the two-and-a-half decades since I brought “Brown Sugar” to my Bed-Stuy apartment and listened to it for the first time.