D’Angelo’s friends simply call him “D.” His fans call him M.I.A.
What has the sexy neo-soul star — arguably the most remarkable male R&B force to emerge in the 1990s — been doing in the 13 years since his widely acclaimed, chart-topping, Grammy-winning “Voodoo” album?
The answer is long and complicated (we’ll get to it) but there’s good news now: A new single will be released in July, his overdue third album is expected this fall, and a rare live gig will take place Sunday at First Avenue with Questlove of the Roots.
“I don’t know what to expect [of the gig]. That’s the whole point. We really don’t know what we’re going to do, actually,” said D’Angelo, who has given only three or four interviews and not many more performances during his hiatus. “We just get together and jam. There’s no set list. We keep it pretty loose. We keep each other on our toes.”
He doesn’t want fans to view this as a D’Angelo concert because he certainly doesn’t.
“That pressure is not there,” said the singer. “We’re just playing songs that we like and having a good time.”
In other words, don’t expect an evening of D’Angelo hits like “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” and “Brown Sugar.”
At a similar gig in March at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York, he and Questlove, his longtime drummer and friend, offered songs associated with Sly Stone, Bobby Womack, the S.O.S. Band, Ohio Players and Prince.
They have scheduled only one other duo gig, billed as “Brothers in Arms: A Two-Man Show,” on July 3 in Philadelphia.
Inspired by Prince
Minneapolis and especially First Avenue are important to D’Angelo and to Questlove, too.
“We are both Prince aficionados,” D’Angelo said, who has never performed at First Avenue, the club where Prince filmed his “Purple Rain” movie. “Prince is my biggest influence. He continues to be an inspiration, the career that he’s had, the overall adoration and respect that he still gets. He’s put down a powerful, powerful legacy of great music and great art.”
D’Angelo, 39, always sounds enthusiastic when talking about his buddy Questlove, a k a Ahmir Thompson.
“I love to work with Ahmir,” he said in a phone interview last week from New York City. “Because of his musical intelligence. We have very similar tastes. We finish each other’s sentences. We don’t have to do a lot of talking. We’ve worked together so much we just slot right in, you know. Brothers from a different mother, no doubt.”
New CD ‘almost’ done
Last year, D’Angelo and his full band (which includes former Time guitarist Jesse Johnson) played about a dozen shows in Europe and 15 U.S. gigs with Mary J. Blige — his first North American performances in 10 years. Those concerts proved that D’Angelo was still alive and well, if a bit heavier than in his stripped-naked “Untitled” video days.
“I got to play with my new band, and it was great to play new songs,” he said. “I’m dying for people to hear the new stuff.”
He’ll drop a single, “Really Love,” next month but won’t disclose the name of his album.
Not following trends
If “Voodoo” was more improvisational and organic than his structured, soulful “Brown Sugar” debut in 1995, what’s the new album like?
“It’s funky,” D’Angelo said with a hearty laugh. “It’s definitely a progression from ‘Voodoo.’ I lock myself in a bubble so I haven’t been too up on things. I never base my [stuff] on trends. I ain’t skipping a beat. This new [stuff] is powerful.”
Yes, that long-awaited third album is “almost” done. But he’s been saying that for — how many years?
“I’ve been saying it for too long actually,” he said. “There’s been a lot of red tape and record business stuff that goes on. Legal issues kind of halted things. [He was arrested for drug possession in 2005 and for soliciting a female undercover New York police officer in 2010.] A lot of personal things as well. Thank God, I’m here and I’m healthy. And I’m going to give the people more.”
A call for help to Clapton
Some of the personal issues, such as his addiction to drugs and alcohol, are no secret. He went to rehab three times; the last time, he personally phoned Eric Clapton to allow him into Clapton-founded Crossroads Centre in Antigua.
The 2006 death of hip-hop producer J Dilla, who worked with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common and others before succumbing to a rare blood disease, had a profound impact on D’Angelo.
“That shook up everybody. We just did a song together for Common,” he said of J Dilla. “We were friendly and talked a lot and made plans to do some more things together. We really lost a force. I was so shaken up that I couldn’t even go to the funeral. I was knee deep in my addiction at that time. That one — wow — that’s when I called Eric Clapton.”
All along, D’Angelo kept writing songs, trying to create art, not music, or as he puts it: “I’m trying to bring balance to the force.” He practiced guitar. (Keyboards have been his main instrument since age 3, when he played in his preacher-father’s church.) He had three children — now 16, 13 and 2 — with three different women in different parts of the country. And he had to cope with the heady expectations of being soul music’s next big thing.
What’s the hardest thing about being D’Angelo?
“That’s a tough question,” said the man born Michael Archer in Richmond, Va. (where his mom keeps his two Grammys). “I’m still trying to figure all that out. There is a separation between D’Angelo and Michael. When I’m at home, I’m just Dad. I get a kick out of how my kids see D’Angelo, the artist. That’s a trip sometimes.
“I’ve talked about the issues I’ve had with substance abuse. I think more is made of that whole sex symbol thing. I don’t look at it so much as a problem. Everybody has their own individual way of dealing with fame or celebrity. There is no school for that, especially for musicians. Athletes have more things in place for them to learn how to deal with success, money, fame and all that stuff. It’s tricky. I’m learning how to navigate my way through all of that. I think I’ll be doing that till I die.”