By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Thierry Legoues|
A few weeks before the release of his hit album, Voodoo(Virgin), D’Angelo appeared on the cover of New York’s Paper magazine, sprawled on the floor, looking up at the camera from under sleepy lids and wearing what looked like a pair of glittery panties. His gym-overhauled body glistened against a glowing red backdrop. For fans still vibing off the reflective-ruffneck/thug-luvva persona that he’d come with on his ’95 debut album, Brown Sugar, the reaction was simple enough: What the fuq? (Paper’s fashion credits listed the psycho drawers as a “bathing suit by John Bartlett.”)
It was a short while later that the nekkidvideo for “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” made its splash on BET, and really set tongues wagging. With its extreme close-ups and teasing midshots (the camera cropping the singer’s nude body so that the frame stopped just above his pubes, leading more than one desperado to go right up to the TV screen and peer down), the video was a brilliant marketing move. D’Angelo’s long-awaited, much-delayed sophomore record was — according to industry scuttlebutt — going to be a commercial and artistic dud, and the less-than-lukewarm reaction to the CD’s first video, “Left & Right” (featuring Redman & Method Man, hip-hop’s sexiest and most ubiquitous couple), seemed to cement the whispers. The clip for “Untitled” quickly turned everything around.
In the weeks before the album dropped, the video stoked anticipation so much that Voodoo ended up debuting at No. 1, and is still resting comfortably in the Top 40, with almost double-platinum sales. It didn’t hurt that critics fell over themselves lavishing praise on the disc. But what’s more interesting about the “Untitled” video is the questions it raises, especially when considered along with the photo spread for Paper. Though the “artistic” impetus for the video was that it’s meant to symbolize the rawness and honesty of the music, D’Angelo (or his handlers) was also clearly thinking about moving units when his new image was crafted: Sex sells.
Sexuality and black men is a topic strewn with land mines. The fact that recent videos for almost every hip-hop/R&B male artist are filled with thong-clad white and mulatto girls bumping and grinding has been the subject of much debate and controversy within the African-American community, but few seem willing to admit the complexity of issues subtextually dealt with in these clips, for to do so would open a Pandora’s box of fears and taboos: miscegenation, intraracial racism, internalized fear of both the black male and the black female body, the exaggeration of heterosexual prowess in order to mask fears of appearing soft — i.e., faggot. (The irony is that current hip-hop and R&B imagery is a hotbed of homoerotic energy. The Ruff Ryders posse alone is a ghetto-fag fantasy writ large.)
“Identity” is the hottest commodity in the pop arts, but with the confluence of cultures, the morphing of racial and cultural issues, and the ongoing anxiety over “authenticity,” identity is now thrillingly/scarily fluid. The imagery in “Untitled” is notable for a number of reasons: the camera’s loving caress of the black male body; the way D’Angelo’s beauty is thrown into high relief (those lips, those abs); the unabashed tenderness of his pose — the absence of swagger, yet the essence of black maleness.
What’s fascinating is that D’Angelo doesn’t fully own it. He seems uncomfortable, both shy and a tad awkward in front of the video lens. Luckily, this tentativeness works well within the concept of the clip. And it makes you wonder, was this all his idea or someone else’s? If it was his idea, or if he got onboard with no arm twisting, then his discomfort is even more interesting. What, if anything, was he trying to prove/convey/conquer beyond the charts?
D’Angelo’s beefcake reincarnation becomes even more intriguing when juxtaposed against a similar — and seemingly failed — attempt by Q-Tip. Having achieved iconic status as one of hip-hop’s intellectual and spiritual leaders in A Tribe Called Quest, Tip decided that he would bling! bling! for his solo outing, Amplified(Arista). It’s a good pop/hip-hop party album, one that doesn’t sound quite like anything else out there right now; there’s some real wit in the deceptively sparse production. But the album’s fierce adherence to the ghetto-fabulous aesthetic in its lyrics has proved controversial. Longtime Tribe fans cried sellout and turned their backs on the record. The videos, filled with scantily clad women, actually alienated a lot of headz, even though “Vivrant Thing” was a huge crossover hit. It’s like the totality of Q-Tip’s music, videos and hunk posturing are a performance-art piece, sans the wink and nudge that lets you know that it’s all actually trenchant commentary on the state of hip-hop. It’s as though Tip, who spent years toiling on the underground rap circuit building up credibility but no ducats, decided he’d jump headfirst into the formula of contemporary hip-hop, finally get paid by pimping current trends, but tweak them with enough sonic twists to pull him ahead of the pack and buy him some leeway with his fan base. So what went wrong?