|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 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 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?
There’s a real joy and playfulness in Amplified’s grooves, the giddiness of exploring possibilities. As disappointing as it is to hear Q-Tip rhyme about Prada, banging bush and battling weak MCs, there’s 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 he’s clearly having a good time in the videos and on the CD, he’s 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 ho’s — seem even more garish, even more fraudulent. He doesn’t own them.
It’s ironic: On the CD, Q-Tip’s 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 who’s clearly going through some shit that’s 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 D’Angelo, 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.
D’Angelo’s Voodoo, similarly, was meant to deflate, meet and exceed expectations all at once, but D’Angelo dived deeper into his shit to achieve that goal. D’Angelo’s 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.
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. “Devil’s 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 Flack’s “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 D’Angelo as one of the very few chart-topping R&B acts clearly serious about the music.
You can hear in D’Angelo’s voice that he’s 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 didn’t require him to fake himself out.
D’Angelo appears at Universal Amphitheater, Friday–Saturday, April 7-8.