Back in the Nineties no artist defined soul music quite like D’Angelo did. The Virginia native’s 1995 debut album ‘Brown Sugar’ helped revolutionise mainstream modern-day rhythm and blues, and along with the likes of Maxwell and Jill Scott, D’Angelo and co were at the forefront of the popular neo-soul era.
However, it was D’Angelo’s long-awaited sophomore LP ‘Voodoo’ that really put the multi-talented singer-songwriter on the map, swinging Michael Eugene Arche in a lane above his rivals. Released in January 2000, the critically acclaimed and commercially successful double Grammy-winning record fused contemporary soul with old school funk, whilst exuding traditional jazz – resulting in Robert Christgau dubbing the young star the “R&B Jesus”.
Later that year D’Angelo embarked on what is now being described as his historic “Voodoo Tour” – a host of live shows that saw the soul sensation travel the world with his group The Soultronics, cementing his place as one of the genre’s most influential musicians. Fans eagerly awaited the follow-up to ‘Voodoo’, but to much disappointment, a third album never arose.
To really understand the complexity of this comeback, one has to be aware of the reasons behind D’Angelo’s long hiatus from the limelight. A new album has been in the pipelines for many years, but a long battle with alcohol and substance abuse, as well as numerous court cases, have kept the star off track, both musically and personally. And in 2010 he was arrested for attempting to pay an undercover cop for oral sex in New York. The notorious mug shot that followed revealed a shockingly dishelmed, overweight looking D’Angelo – a figure a million miles away from the muscular physically toned man who stripped naked for the infamous 2000 ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ music video.
It’s been over a decade since he performed live and a staggering 12 years since the release of his last album, so when PhatNights announced the R&B superstar would be coming to London for two gigs as part of a mini European tour, fans wasted no time snapping up tickets for one of the most eagerly anticipated R&B shows of modern times.
It’s 9.20pm and Brixton Academy is at full capacity. The main man is running slightly late, but audiences are excitedly patient, whilst being happily entertained by his impressive live backing band. Suddenly the lights dim, exhilarating cheers and screams engulf the venue as a healthier looking D’Angelo enters the stage to ‘Player Player’ intro. Donning a leather black jacket and a wild west inspired black hat, with his guitar in tow, the 37-year-old opens with a funk rendition of ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’. Upon hearing the first song alone, any suggestions that D’Angelo isn’t fit to make a live comeback are quickly diminished, as the singers emotionally raw and flawlessly powerful vocals declare that the soul legend is officially back like he never even left.
Old classics such as ‘Devil’s Pie’ and ‘Chicken Grease’ complete the nostalgic moment, with an extended version of ‘Shit, Damn, Motherfucker’ sending audiences into frenzy mode. Half way through the up-tempo James Brown reminiscent set, D’Angelo takes it down a notch as he jumps on the piano. New songs ‘The Charade’ and ‘Sugar Daddy’ are greeted warmly, but it’s classic ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ which garners the loudest applause. The encore comes courtesy of a remixed version of ‘Brown Sugar’.
Can the live show triumph translate to new album success? Only time will tell. But the public have been waiting an extremely long time for this moment and judging from the smile on his face whilst performing this weekend, it’s evident the iconic soul singer enjoys being back on stage and has been waiting for this moment equally as much as the fans have. And with contemporary R&B music in such a dire state right now, the genre needs the “messiah of rhythm and blues” to come back and inject some credibility back into modern R&B music.
Words by Vanessa Laker