Source: Uptown magazine
London, September 1995. The Jazz Café buzzes with a vibe of expectation that Brits haven’t felt since singer Meshell Ndegeocello hit this same stage for her fi rst time last year. Chaka Khan, Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Paradis, and Jazzie B all crowd the upstairs tier’s VIP section. Brown Sugar just hit stores two months ago, but the whole world wants a live taste of America’s new 21-year-old soul wunderkind, D’Angelo. His debut album’s organic blending of R&B with the percussive rhythms and dusty atmosphere of hip-hop is like nothing anyone’s ever heard, as if Prince or Stevie Wonder grew up as B-boys. Lights dim, and the intimate crowd screams. Dressed in jet black, the shy singer/songwriter, in tight cornrows, steps center stage, confidently takes a seat behind his organ, and blows everyone clean away.
D’Angelo delivered transcendent nights like that on a regular basis once. Brown Sugar ushered in the last great stylistic shift in R&B, what record exec Kedar Massenburg christened the neosoul movement. In the 17 years since, D’Angelo dropped one other modern classic—2000’s spellbinding Voodoo—then disappeared from the music industry altogether in a fog of drug rehabilitation and self-destructive tabloid incidents. Now D’Angelo’s back, with a string of live shows meant to culminate into a new album that’s “pretty much 97 percent done,” according to collaborator Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. Will he fulfill his early promise as the Marvin Gaye of modern times?
Like in any great story, clues to the end lay buried at the beginning.
“When he arrived onstage, it wasn’t with the puffed-up chest of a fighter,” remembers British music journalist Jacqueline Springer, who attended the London show 17 years ago. (EMI Records eventually released the set as Live at the Jazz Café, now out of print.) “[He had] a level of discomfort and unease. I don’t remember him talking very much. I certainly don’t remember him making eye contact with the crowd. Some girls screamed; he simply ignored them.”
Michael Eugene Archer was born an Aquarius— February 11, 1974—in Richmond, Va., son of a Pentecostal preacher and a God-fearing mom. He cut his chops on the piano before he could even reach the pedals, later playing regularly at his family’s Refuge Assembly of Yahweh—Yahshua the Messiah Church. The Southern boy who’d one day rechristen himself D’Angelo came into the music industry the old-fashioned way, from houses of worship to the House of Blues.
No pop-star teenybopper product of reality TV or Disney variety shows, D’Angelo knows firsthand about church fans with photos of Martin Luther King, Jr., crushed velvet pews, and women speaking in tongues writhing around catching the Spirit. Funk pioneer Sly Stone was raised with just as much Pentecostalism and holy organs in his background. Church life molds you a certain way. Teenage Mike Archer also grew up spinning Prince tracks like “Darling Nikki” and “Girl” backwards for the hidden messages, and emceeing along to A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory on his Discman.