I was living in a two-bed terrace just off the Welford Road in Leicester, living with an ageing Italian diplomat called Mr La Barca, who kept the fridge sparse apart from his supply of cambozola, which he used to offer me on a little plate, saying
“You muuuuust! You muuuuust!”
After formal but friendly chit-chat, he’d go back to his desk and his study books, and I’d sit in the living room, reading monumental novels like Last Exit to Brooklyn, wondering if I would ever write something great, paralysed by that
One day in early January, wearing my bomber indoors because me and Mr La Barca (I never knew his first name; didn’t want to know) didn’t like central heating, my friend Lucy knocked and handed me D’Angelo’s Voodoo album; and I don’t know how those hippies felt when they got Sgt Pepper in their mitts, or the punk kids at the first sight of Never Mind the Bollocks, but this was a moment that, even when I’m dribbling in the nursing home, I won’t forget
You might say, “Rich, wasn’t he just another turn of the century soulboy – like R Kelly, with fewer motoring/sex metaphors? Like Sisqo, without the cheerful adoration of ladies’ underwear?
and I’d say, “Hang on.”
Let’s go back to my desolate Leicester bedroom. I stick the CD in my cheap Sony hifi. Mr La Barca is in his bedroom next door, playing one of his English language tapes to which he would repeat
“STEAK AND KEEEDNEY PUDDING”
and other essential phrases to help him fit seamlessly into East Midlands life.
I lie on my bed and listen to Voodoo and, first listen, I knew this album was a work of art. It is a journey from the street, through lust, sex, love and then, when you have been immersed in all that grittiness and sensuousness, to a song, Africa, which is the most powerful evocation of the spiritual I have ever heard.
In Miles Davis’s autobiography, Miles says that he loves the music of Prince because it is both innovative and rooted. That’s how it is with D’Angelo. He has an instinctive grasp of the essence of soul and gospel and funk and manages to coalesce these threads into something new and, in that final song, Africa, something transcendental.
D’Angelo spun out soon after Voodoo was released. Word was he turned to drink and drugs, junk food, put on weight, quite possibly mentally unravelled. There was talk of whole albums written, recorded, and discarded. It was said D’Angelo had problems with his body image. The record business turned him into a sex object (not without justification) and he couldn’t cope with people seeing him as a sort of singing, dancing, six-pack-on-legs.
It took 14 years to get to this week, when another album was released. In that time, me and my friend Patrick have often discussed him in our annual pre-Christmas drinks – is he all right, is he getting it together, will next year be the year.
In 2012, as part of D’Angelo’s re-emergence into the public sphere, Patrick, my cousin Jenny and I went down to Brixton Academy to see him. The show was okay, although not on the level of a concert from his nu-soul contemporary Jill Scott I had seen in the same venue. Despite his frankly enormous arm and chest muscles, he looked strangely vulnerable on stage. And yet, when his over-blown band put their instruments down and D’Angelo was left to sit at the grand piano and play – alone – we saw a glimmer of that once-in-a-generation talent.
When the announcement was made earlier this week, I went a bit mental. I don’t know how Take That fans reacted at news of their reformation a few years back, but if they burst into tears, ran around a bit, babbled incomprehensibly to their housemate and have been smiling ever since, then their reaction was highly restrained compared to my own.
I emailed Patrick, who is on holiday in South America: NEW D’ANGELO ALBUM!!!!! To which he responded: “This is one of the happiest days of my life.”
And if you think we are mad, I would say: “Fair enough.” I’d also say, it’s not just us. At the media launch of the album, one of D’Angelo’s close musical friends, Questlove, spoke to journalists (sparing D’Angelo that burden) and, while he is a lot cooler than me, there was a sense that he wanted to high-five and hug the whole world, when he said:
“I don’t really want to give a hyperbolic or grandiose statement, but it’s everything. It’s beautiful, it’s ugly, it’s truth, it’s lies. It’s everything.”