The Return of D’Angelo: Older, Less Naked, but Still a Once-In-a-Lifetime Talent

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There were rumors he wasn’t going to show up. It took an hour for him to take the stage on Sunday night, as the crowd in Commodore Barry Park swelled and the air was thick with smoke. Heck, even when he was playing, starting off with an endless jam, girls in the audience were like, “Is that him?” Seeing Michael Eugene Archer, better known as the soul singer and reclusive genius D’Angelo, is a very different proposition in 2014 to what it was in his early 2000s heyday.

He was headlining the 10th edition of the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn, a festival that is an embarrassment of riches: it’s free, it runns for two days, and the murderer’s row of bands ran from hardcore legends Bad Brains (with guest vocalists), through the gone-viral and recently signed heavy metal kids Unlocking the Truth and the futuristic groove of Shabazz Palaces, to Valerie June’s charming, “moonshine-fueled”, as she joked, country-soul mix. That’s not even the half of it; I saw Alice Smith, Lianne La Havas, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Meshell Ndegeocello over the span of two days, and they played loose, stunning sets with some fun covers (Smith’s version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” is perfect) and hip-shaking originals (much of Ndegeocello’s set was from her new album, Comet, Come to Me).

That’s a rich bounty for any festival, particularly one as laid-back and fun as this one, with a real air of hanging out in the park and having a great picnic, but to be honest, I only saw a quarter of it at most: there were more bands, DJs, food trucks, writers appearing courtesy of Greenlight Bookstore (MK Asante, the author of the harrowing, brilliant Buck, is very good looking, and not just on that generous “cute for a writer” scale), booths, and Activism Row, where community groups and activists set up shop to talk to the concertgoers.

In the light of the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Michael Brown, and other cases of unarmed black men being killed by police offers, including Eric Garner of Staten Island, there was a political edge to the festival that felt immediate. Mike Brown and Eric Garner were shouted out by bands and DJs. People wearing shirts that said “don’t shoot” posed for photos with their hands up. Before the D’Angelo set began, the organizers took a photo of the whole audience with their hands up, and we chanted “hands up, don’t shoot.” It was an emotional and sobering moment, one of solidarity with Ferguson.

I had seen D’Angelo once before, during the thick of the Voodoo tour in 2001. It was the best show I have ever seen in my history of going to concerts, and as an ex-music journalist, I have a long, checkered past with shows. So far, nothing has surpassed that D’Angelo show, and I’m not sure anything ever will. Imagine a crowd of 5,000 people, mostly women, freaking out, standing on chairs, in total hysterics. D’Angelo sang classics like “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” with a band of some 20 members, all decked out in feathers and bright colors, vamping for 20 minutes at a time. D’Angelo, wearing a white tanktop, ran out into the crowd, and returned, eventually, with nothing but a string of fabric around his neck. Ecstatic, electric energy flooded the air. It was magical. I left the show convinced that I had seen Marvin Gaye in his prime, James Brown when he can’t go on (he’ll go on), Prince before he was Prince, the next legend in the making.

And then… nothing. Voodoo was released in 2000. D’Angelo fell off the map. Articles would come out — Questlove, who played drums on Voodoo and was the musical director for the tour, would give interviews talking about where D’Angelo’s next album was at, citing his perfectionist tendencies, his weed-smoking, the troubles he had in the wake of the iconic (and naked) “Untitled” video. And having seen the roar of the crowds that D’Angelo had in the palm of his hand, I got that, a little bit. It was a heady, ravenous energy.

Years passed, and then D’Angelo finally started to peek his head out. He sat for a profile with GQ. He started to tour again. Tickets were very, very expensive, at least on a then-freelancer’s budget. There was (and continues to be) no album, but at least we’ve been getting semi-regular proof that he exists.

Which leads us to D’Angelo’s appearance on Sunday night as the Afropunk Festival headliner. He had been announced as the headliner previously, but the week before, his name was taken off the bill, replacing it with a “special guest” that we all knew was D’Angelo. He was scheduled for 8:30pm. Time passed. The media were shunted out of the photographers’ pit and shown the door before the show could go on. I may have muttered something like “Waiting 14 years for your next album and now I have to wait an hour on Sunday?” The clock ticked on. At 9:30pm, Questlove came onstage and got behind the drums. He laid into a beat. It lasted, and lasted. Eventually the rest of the musicians set up behind him. They locked into a groove. D’Angelo was playing the guitar. He was really there!

Even though I couldn’t really see him. The stage had been set up in such a way that if you were to the far side, as I was, D’Angelo was in a line with his band. It was hard not to think of a frontman stepping back, making the decision to just be a musician, not a product. All you could hear was his voice, the thwack and the sounds of the guitar. And his voice was in fine, supple shape, with texture and soul. He started with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Burnin’ and Lootin’,” a song about police brutality. From there, the set had covers and some oldies, like “Greatdayndamornin’,” all locked into a Jimi Hendrix-y, swampy, funky groove. It was a really rich headspace to feel in my bones, to have the vibrations surging through the air. But by the time they played for a half hour, I felt very tired, certainly had a contact high, and was ready to go home.

It wasn’t the D’Angelo I saw in 2001. That guy is gone, and well, how long could you keep up the R&B sex god routine? It seemed as if it would be exhausting. These days, the only performer coming close to that energy is Janelle Monáe. While waiting for an hour, I had my moments of thinking that maybe D’Angelo was just a dream I had once, a vision. Maybe it wasn’t even real. But then he came out on stage, proving that he existed, that he was real and while it may not have been “OMG the best concert evaaaaa,” it was still a reminder that there’s a reason people have been hankering for a new D’Angelo album for a decade. That we should hold out hopes that there’s maybe another D’Angelo album coming out, someday. Even in the confines of a free show, he’s got a once-in-a-lifetime talent. I just wish we’d get to see it.