Black Pop Kool-Aid: D’Angelo’s “Left & Right”
July 17, 2009 · Print This ArticleBy Michael A. Gonzales
“To me, there is a difference between artists and stars,” soul singer D’Angelo told me way back in 1995. And there was no doubt that he placed himself in the former category no matter how much the rest of the world wanted to place him as the latter. “I don’t want people to tell me how great I sound, but then I don’t build on it,” he added. “What comes first is the music. I want to make dope music. It’s been like that from the beginning and it’s going to stay like that.”
Twenty-one years old at the time, the former child gospel singer named Michael Eugene Archer was in the process of transforming himself into a powerhouse soul man with his stunning debut disc Brown Sugar.
Yet five years after the release of that groundbreaking album, which sowed the seeds of the so-called neo-soul revolution, the young Virginia native had a lot riding on his sophomore project Voodoo. Literarily taking his sophisticated sound to the “next level,” D’Angelo’s Voodoo was a stunning work of art that quickly became the talk of the town.
Nevertheless, following the runaway success of the damn-near pornographic (some prefer the term provocative) video for the second single “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” and a subsequent sold-out tour, D’Angelo retreated from the spotlight.
With the exception of a few cameos including an appearance on Q-Tip’s 2008 album The Renaissance, the man many hoped would be the savior of R&B has been musically inactive since 2001. There were reports about his escalating depressions and alleged drug use, and it looked as if the rigorous demands of the music business caused the young artist to have a classic rock-star crack-up.
In last year’s Spin magazine article “Body & Soul,” Roots drummer and former D’Angelo collaborator Ahmir “?usestlove” Thompson asserted that the pressures of being considered a pin-up boy put the brother over the edge.
“Everybody is not built to be a sex symbol,” agrees Nelson George, author of the recently released autobiography City Kid and the classic soul book The Death of Rhythm & Blues. “Just look at how it fucked up his hero Marvin Gaye.”
Not to take anything away from Maxwell and the current chart-topping success of his album Blacksummer’s Night, but it was D’Angelo who courageously blazed the trail that allowed Maxwell and other exponents of the so-called neo-soul movement to be different. Though Brown Sugar and Voodoo are his only albums thus far, D’Angelo’s fearless experimentation broadened the language of R&B by exploring new sonic possibilities. Currently signed to J Records, D’Angelo has spent the better part of a decade making his third album James River, which will supposedly feature guest appearances from Prince, Q-Tip, and Cee-Lo. Periodically a label publicist will announce that D’Angelo’s long-awaited return is imminent, but so far no new music has been released.
Recorded at Electric Lady Studios over four years of sessions and released (finally) on January 11 2000, Voodoo was irrefutable proof that D’Angelo had arrived. Culled from over 72 hours of music, the 13 tracks were a fusion of jazz, funk, R&B, hip-hop and an inescapable sense of paranoia best captured on the unsettling DJ Premier–produced banger “Devil’s Pie.” The blazing album won D’Angelo widespread critical acclaim as well as a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album.
Still, it was hardly a conventional follow-up. “I always tell people that Voodoo is more of a musician’s album,” explains soul singer Anthony Hamilton, who sang backup on the Voodoo tour. “The music D made on that record is not the easiest to get into.”
With its bump-n-grind groove and lecherous lyrics, Voodoo’s first single “Left & Right” was a late-’90s anthem of wild nights in the neon-lit metropolis of Manhattan where cool Black bohos and buppies popped ecstasy tabs like Tic-Tacs, cocaine delivery guys parked outside trendy clubs, and everyone was as freaky as they wanted to be.
The danceable “Left and Right” also functioned as an introduction to the basic themes of Voodoo, which depicted the classic soul-man battle between good and evil, love and hate, the sanctified and the profane. “You can hear the darkness in that album,” Grammy-winner India Arie says. “Maybe not so much in the lyrics, but in the tone. For me, it’s like the difference between [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On and Here, My Dear.”
In 2009, D’Angelo remains M.I.A. (though he’s rumored to be back in the studio). Still the internet is overflowing with visual and aural artifacts documenting his two-album legacy including the little-seen video for “Left & Right,” which was shot (but not released) exactly 10 years ago. Originally conceived as a duet between D and his friend Q-Tip, the former Tribe Called Quest leader was later replaced by sexist rhyme animals Redman and Method Man.
“D’Angelo’s manager thought that Tip’s verse was wack,” recalls Gary Harris, the former A&R man who signed D’Angelo to EMI Records. “With ‘Left and Right’ chosen to be the first single, the main issue wasn’t necessarily about the music, but about making it hot.”
Artful and funky, director Malik Hassan Sayeed’s performance video of D’Angelo and the Soulquarian band was a brilliant exercise in Afro-impressionism textured with saturated colors, mood lighting, quick cuts, simulated sex, and a few moments of true beauty.
While Paul Hunter’s pelvis-centric vision of a naked D’Angelo in “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” was a publicity wet dream that earned a nomination for Video of the Year at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards, the hedonistic images of “Left & Right” serve as a shocking visual metaphor forecasting D’Angelo’s forthcoming pop-life decline.It was the summer of 1999, and I was assigned to interview D’Angelo for a then-leading urban magazine. Invited to the last day of filming for the “Left and Right” video, which was shot over the course of two weekends inside a vacant building in the Wall Street area, I was amazed by the Felliniesque vibe of director Malik Hassan Sayeed’s set.
A native New Yorker, Sayeed was director of photography on Spike Lee’s films The Original Kings of Comedy, Girl 6 and He Got Game; he had also worked as director of photography beside video auteur Hype Williams’ on his 1998 feature debut Belly and served as second unit Directort of Photography on Stanley Kubrick’s swan-song Eyes Wide Shut.
“Malik’s concept for ‘Left & Right” was exceptional,” remembers on-set producer Rich Ford Jr. “It was a concert video that paid tribute to funk shows of the past.” Conceived during an era when the hottest music videos were ultra-bright and vibrantly colorful Hype Williams/Puff Daddy collaborations—many of which Sayeed shot as DP—the murky “Left & Right” was the antithesis of that trend.
Walking through a set that resembled a decaying tenement from David Fincher’s Se7en, I peeped funk father George Clinton standing in the corner nonchalantly smoking what appeared to be a crack pipe. “It was crazy,” Ford recalls. “I kept asking George to go somewhere else and smoke, but he really didn’t care who saw him.”
Standing against the back wall, I stared as D’Angelo swaggered towards the bandstand. Unlike the soft-spoken southern b-boy dressed in jeans and Timberlands I’d met four years before, he had transformed into a dandy bohemian on par with Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
With an electric ax strapped around his shoulders, D looked as though he was ready to conjure his inner guitar god. The formerly pudgy singer now had a body-builder physique, and his once neatly braided hair was wild and loose.
Wandering freely around the massive set, I detected the smell of sweat, fragrant oils, cigarettes and weed perfuming the air. The entire building was crowded with scantly clothed women in exotic feathers, crazed PA’s screaming over the din, the assistant director yelling at the PAs not to let rappers Redman and Method Man leave the building and go-fers running to the store to buy D’Angelo more cigarettes.
Looking like he’d just crashed-landed Funkadelic’s mothership into a vintage clothing store, D was dressed in a glam outfit of black vest (but no shirt) trimmed with faux-zebra skin and velvet pants. A silver crucifix dangled from his neck.
Joining his Voodoo session homeboys drummer ?uestlove, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, keyboardist James Poyser, bassist Pino Palladino and guitar Charlie Hunter on stage, D’Angelo was excited. Unfortunately, the guest rappers were missing.
“Well, where are they?” the director moaned into a walkie-talkie as the film crew set out to locate Red and Meth. Both pothead rappers had wandered away from the soundstage and disappeared. Though Sayeed was a vet of urban video shoots, he looked stressed.
“When the production company saw the chaos of the set, they were in pain,” laughs Ford. “Malik was frantic, but he managed to keep his composure.” The rappers were finally located in a trailer outside playing video games.
By the time the snickering rappers walked to the stage, the music began to blare. Driven by a laidback guitar, soulful finger snaps and macho lyricism, D’s lustful falsetto echoed throughout the room. “Smack your ass, pull your hair/and I even kiss you way down there,” he devilishly sang. “You know I will/think I won’t?”
Hanging over the bandstand, a gaudy chandelier glimmered. Reeking of the uber-masculinity of a prizefighter, D’Angelo reminded one of legendary boxer Jack Johnson stepping into the ring to do damage.
With his sexually charged persona “on eleven,” D’Angelo’s transformation from soul crooner to big-city rock star was in full effect. As the director shot the band’s mock performance, smoke machines sputtered, hand-held camera operators moved through the crowd and the off-kilter song blared from numerous speakers.
“It was like something out of a post–Purple Rain rock fantasy,” laughs vocalist Sun Singleton, who played one of the background singers. “Malik’s vision was freaky and as a former film major, I was in awe watching him work. He was serious, but very quiet.”
Standing in the rear, I joined the extras in enjoying the pretend concert as they swung their arms back and forth. After an hour, Malik finally got the shots he needed and called for a dinner break. Minutes later, the unit publicist retrieved me from the excited crowd.
“D’Angelo will be up in a minute,” she assured me as we walked upstairs to a dreary, dimly lit room containing a few chairs. Discolored with rust spots, water dripped from the ceiling in the far corner of the room. I sat down, pulled out my tape recorder and patiently waited for D to arrive.
From the moment D’Angelo stepped into the room twenty minutes later, I could tell something was wrong. Followed closely by six men burly men wearing identical black suits, the intimating guys positioned themselves around the room, looking more like henchman than bodyguards.
Maybe tired, perhaps high, there was something strange about D’Angelo’s behavior. I reached out to shake his hand, but he eyeballed me suspiciously and mumbled something inaudible. Standing around the room with steely faces and outlaw attire, his boys made me uncomfortable.
Afraid that asking the wrong question could be deadly for my health, I turned on the tape recorder. “You’ve been working on this record for a few years,” I began. “Can we talk about the concepts behind Voodoo?”
Fidgeting in the chair, D’Angelo’s steady flow of non-answers seemed like an elaborate joke. Unfortunately though, he wasn’t kidding. Unlike my first interview with him in 1995, where we talked about music and life for hours, the dude in front of me four years later had apparently drunk the Black pop kool-aid.
Right before my eyes, D’Angelo was turning into a parody of the clichéd troubled soul man. At a time when he should have been on top of the world, D’Angelo was instead on the verge of toppling from the pedestal we (fans, critics) had put him on.
And as musical masterminds Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Sly Stone and Donny Hathaway have proved before him, bugged-out geniuses don’t always make a whole lot of sense in interviews. Leaning back in the chair, D’Angelo stared vacantly as I turned off the recorder.
“This is silly,” I said. “Maybe we should do this at another time.” Pushing back the chair, I stood up. Nobody moved or said a word as I walked across the floor. Closing the door behind me, I walked down the stairs toward the bright lights of the video set.
While “Left & Right” director Malik Hassen Sayeed and producer Rich Ford Jr. were excited about “bringing back” D’Angelo, at least visually, it was only a matter of time before the video became a burden to the filmmakers.
Though highly anticipated by fans and music biz folks—especially executives at MTV who’d scheduled special promotions and a world premiere for the clip—it seemed like the project would never be finished.
“We had already gone $30,000 over budget and the label was unwilling to give us any more money,” recalls Ford. “Malik had all these different special effects he wanted to add in post-production, but it was impossible. The video was due, but Malik wanted to do it his way.”
Disappointed by the lack of creative control, Sayeed, who that same year was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his DP work on Belly, took his name off the project and used the pseudonym Willie Lynch instead.They ended up missing the deadline for the MTV premiere. “Even when we finally finished the edit,” Ford recalls, “the network punished us by refusing to put ‘Left & Right’ into rotation. That’s why so many people never knew the song was Voodoo’s first single, let alone a video.” Ten years later, Sayeed’s gone on to make videos for Jay-Z (“Jigga What, Jigga Who”), Prince (“The Greatest Romance Ever Sold”) and Lauryn Hill (Ex-Factor). He directs commercials for big name clients like Fuji, Nike, and Miller Light. The D’Angelo video may not be the full expression of Sayeed’s vision, but it holds up surprisingly well after all this time, offering a window into a world that now seems a long was away. And a glimpse of what can happen when you drink the Kool-Aid.