D’Angelo & The Vanguard.
Live at Forest Hills Stadium, Queens
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I remember the first time I ever heard the song “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” ..
It was January 9th, 2000. I know the date because it was a Sunday. I was at a Circuit City store in Albuquerque, New Mexico. browsing the aisles for new CDs. At the back of the store were the giant TV displays, and the store’s sound system was pumping a broadcast that all of the TVs had been sync’d to. You know how it is when you walk into a store like this—you hear advertisements, and you immediately tune it out. But suddenly this guitar starts playing, the kind that sounds unmistakably like Prince or Lenny Kravitz and I might have easily confused it for either of them if not for the fact that I already owned all of their albums. I remember thinking, What. Is. That? I stood up and glanced to the back of the store and saw something I’d never seen before or since in my lifetime: a mob of perhaps every black woman in the store stampeding back to the TV display section to see in spectacular 40″ fashion every contour of this ripped, naked black man with cornrows. Broadcasting in a major electronics store!
The song was sex, to be sure.
As I made my way to the back of the store, there they were, a crowd of black women climbing over themselves, losing their minds, spurting out God in a way I’d never heard the word God said before … one woman said D’Angelo’s name the way they’d said God … like GAAAAAWD … and I remember being surprised, shocked even by this thoroughly don’t-give-a-crap mind-losing of these church-going black women, but also noticing (quite apparently so) that none of the white women in the store knew who this naked man was. But some of them wanted to know; one of them asked me. I told her, but I too, was perplexed.
As of that day, D’Angelo wasn’t a mainstream star. His first album had been released five years prior and spawned some top R&B hits, but in the 90s R&B regressed into a decidedly black radio camp and wasn’t crossover unless it was Boyz II Men or Mary J Blige, which is to say rarified air. And I liked his first album, but not enough to own it (this would later change). But when I saw this video, and the primal response to this artist by women, I had to buy that album. Voodoo was that album for me that I had to play when my girlfriend was in the room. It was that album that got me to realise that music within a genre didn’t have to be within the genre. In 2000 we got two great albums like that, Voodoo and Radiohead’s Kid A. D’Angelo was that new Beatlemania/Jackson type; R Kelly in his prime could get women to pass out… but always in concert, never in an electronics store.
The D’Angelo of 2015 is a very a different phenomenon; an artist that never publicly cashed in on that earlier fame, who chose to ditch multiple album projects to finally deliver a message on the current state of racial relations in the United States, who traded in his sex symbol status for serious musicianship on multiple instruments. The guitar was something that D’Angelo picked up after releasing Voodoo in 2000, and I couldn’t help but think how much his playing exceeded my expectations as I photographed him yesterday. Unlike Prince or Kravitz, D’Angelo isn’t the kind of performer who exudes the sort of stage presence energy that sends electric waves to the back of the stadium. He remains painfully shy, even onstage, but he connects with his songs like love making done right, and this is what his audiences feel. When he closes his eyes and screams, you wonder if he’s thinking about that one time. The best time.
Special thanks to D’Angelo’s guitar tech and my guitar guru, Dave McKeon.