A few weeks before the release of his hit album, Voodoo (Virgin), DAngelo appeared on the cover of New Yorks 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 hed come with on his 95 debut album, Brown Sugar, the reaction was simple enough: What the fuq? (Papers fashion credits listed the psycho drawers as a bathing suit by John Bartlett.)
It was a short while later that the nekkid video 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 singers 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. DAngelos 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 CDs first video, Left & Right (featuring Redman & Method Man, hip-hops 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 didnt hurt that critics fell over themselves lavishing praise on the disc. But whats 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 its meant to symbolize the rawness and honesty of the music, DAngelo (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 Pandoras 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 cameras loving caress of the black male body; the way DAngelos 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.
Whats fascinating is that DAngelo doesnt 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 elses? 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?
DAngelos 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-hops intellectual and spiritual leaders in A Tribe Called Quest, Tip decided that he would bling! bling! for his solo outing, Amplified (Arista). Its a good pop/hip-hop party album, one that doesnt sound quite like anything else out there right now; theres some real wit in the deceptively sparse production. But the albums 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. Its like the totality of Q-Tips music, videos and hunk posturing are a performance-art piece, sans the wink and nudge that lets you know that its all actually trenchant commentary on the state of hip-hop. Its as though Tip, who spent years toiling on the underground rap circuit building up credibility but no ducats, decided hed 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?
Theres a real joy and playfulness in Amplifieds grooves, the giddiness of exploring possibilities. As disappointing as it is to hear Q-Tip rhyme about Prada, banging bush and battling weak MCs, theres no denying the seductiveness of the tracks, the shine in his voice (one of the sexiest in hip-hop). But the balance of elements is off. Though hes clearly having a good time in the videos and on the CD, hes been awful in live performances (The Chris Rock Show, the Grammys), detached from his own material and deeply ill at ease he seems as suspicious of his new image as fans are. That makes the trappings the fur coats, the video hos seem even more garish, even more fraudulent. He doesnt own them.
Its ironic: On the CD, Q-Tips in complete command of this ghetto-fab party mode; he makes it seem completely natural. But he gives himself away when it comes time to hawk the stuff. Watching him in public appearances or reading recent interviews is to glimpse a man whos clearly going through some shit thats deeper and darker than the rhymes he spits on his latest record. (And tabloid reports of trouble on the set of his upcoming movie, along with his recent run-ins with the law, seem to bear that out.)
Like DAngelo, Q-Tip was trying to fuck with his image, to dismantle the armor of iconic status by coming out with music and a video that turned his artistic history on its head. He wanted to carve out wiggle room between the quotation marks, but got slammed instead.
DAngelos Voodoo, similarly, was meant to deflate, meet and exceed expectations all at once, but DAngelo dived deeper into his shit to achieve that goal. DAngelos video discomfort reads as the tremble of someone who is literally and figuratively nude, who has stripped away the accouterments that Q-Tip has pulled on. His unease, finally, comes across as an honesty that underscores his musical message rather than negates it. Tellingly, his concerts in support of Voodoo have been nothing short of spectacular. His command of both his material and the stage bespeak a man who got the balance right, who can shirk the contrived image but stand confidently behind the content of his music.
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Where Voodoo initially seems rather slight, repeated listens reveal its heft, and black pride is at its core. Formless jams slowly take shape; distinct but subtle melodies rise from the morass of mumbled words and funk-based grooves. Devils Pie explicitly decries the materialism and shallowness that Q-Tip is trying so hard to wallow in, while tracks like One Mo Gin, The Root and a cover of Roberta Flacks Feel Like Makin Love are the sensuous workouts we used to routinely get from Prince. The craftsmanship of the album, from the production to the songwriting to the singing, marks DAngelo as one of the very few chart-topping R&B acts clearly serious about the music.
You can hear in DAngelos voice that hes connected to something higher, something grander. He took an ice pick to his former persona in order to get closer to that thing, to bring fans along with him. The beefcake poses and softcore video were his tools; ultimately, they didnt require him to fake himself out.
DAngelo appears at Universal Amphitheater, FridaySaturday, April 7-8.