Rising spirit

There’s potion in the motion. It’s an aural motion, a sound so vivid in texture it can almost be seen by the naked eye. It goes where black music has failed to go for years, save for a few Lauryns, Erykahs, Roots, Mos Defs and Commons who assume responsibility for challenging the cultural aesthetic of black music once every month of Sundays.

Where does this music go? Straight to the souls of black folk, but leaving enough universal appeal for everyone to be moved by it. It goes beyond singing about one-night stands, beyond the money-clothes-hoes standard that’s as easy to grasp – and as easy to trash – as a sheet of paper. The motion is D’Angelo’s. It’s aptly titled Voodoo because it invokes the spirits of our ancestors, summoning them to push us, that we might be more receptive to new sonic parameters.

It makes us wonder what, or who, got into dude. It doesn’t use fancy concoctions – no rat knuckles stirred with possum spines, no alley cat hairs and roach toes. And if dude did use the "chicken grease" he sings about on the album, it was only to coat his throat. But there is certainly magic on this one. If you put your ear to the street, in the salons and barbershops, on the buses and in the clubs, you’ll see and hear the effects of the high. Folks don’t discuss his singing. They talk about his movement. His calling. His having been chosen as the next rung in black music’s evolutionary ladder.

It’s interesting how the real singers are so regular once you get past the fluff of music industry hype. D’Angelo, with all of his high-pitched, lip-lickin’, torso-rubbin’ posturing, is considered a "real nigga" around the hood. He’s the cornrowed poster child for the gritty marriage of the ‘70s crooner and the modern-day thug. He doesn’t talk much, to media, to anyone, since Voodoo dropped. And when he does talk, he doesn’t seek to move mountains the way he does musically. He speaks with the regularity of a round-the-way cat, offering more introspection than influence. More on his influences than his indulgences.

"He was doing a show at Jones Beach," D’Angelo says, speaking of the Artist formerly known as – man, Prince. "And I went to the show, and I guess someone told him that I was there. And he announced ‘We gon’ jam with D’Angelo later, at Tramps.’ So, right after he said that, I left and got my keyboard. And I had my brother with me, Ahmir Thompson, from the Roots. And, um, we didn’t really talk that much. He asked what did I want to do. And I picked my favorite song, ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.’ That was that, really. We didn’t say too much else, until after. We kicked it about James Brown."

The influences are omnipresent, at least the obvious ones. They are the spirits whose voices float through D’Angelo’s vocal cords. The ones he somehow manages to sound like, and sound nothing like. The endeared call them by their first names: Al. Marvin. Curtis. Prince. They fade in and out, trading verses, as if holding séances within the body of Michael D’Angelo Archer. They’ll be hovering in the atmosphere around him when he brings the Voodoo Tour to the Fox this Saturday. They were there when he wrote "U Will Know" for the Jason’s Lyric sound track. They were there throughout the long recording of Voodoo, in the late Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studio. They were there when Angie Stone gave birth to their first child, and a mystery woman birthed a second. But prior to the famous influences there had to be a groundbreaking.

Musically, D’Angelo was baptized in a small country chu’ch in Richmond, Va. And now is when we begin to talk about the influences that preceded the stars.

Most of you don’t know them, but you know their kind. The country folk grounded in the gospel, constantly reaching for a closer walk with thee. A small country chu’ch is where D’Angelo learned to play piano by age 5, led the choir by age 14. It’s where his father, Luther Archer Sr. once served as pastor. It’s where he had his first real experience with God, "catching the ghost" in his teens. And it’s where he learned to honor the ancestors.

The small country chu’ch may be the real reason D’Angelo’s music has to be discussed as something more than average songs. His ministry is laid bare. Free of overdubs and chock-full of that old-school session sound. It’s like the lack of electronic assistance when Al sang "I’m so tiiiired of bein’ alone ..." Voodoo came out the way it did because anything else would have been redundant.

"I wanted to take my time and make sure I was doing the right thing, not putting out an album to meet the demands of the industry or the record company," D’Angelo says.

"It didn’t have anything to do with trying to top the last album or selling a trillion copies. I wanted to make some good music and a good second step in my career."

His is rational, career-focused reasoning. And while it’s just as legitimate as a quote about soul-searching and seeking a higher power would be, it’s arguably less encompassing. See, in this industry, the bottom is not what the artist puts into it, but what the consumer gets out of it. And, on the low, people’s faith in music’s ability to make change is being renewed.

It happens with me and my bandmates on the way home from Toronto, pumping "The Root" at 10 p.m. At the end of the track, when the chorus gets repetitious and the ad libs get intense, the energy in the truck goes up. Every instrument becomes crystal clear and, save for the driver, every head on board goes screw-face as heads bob to the same rhythm, in the same motion, in the same direction. When the tune ends, Kamau is the first to break the silence that engulfs the cabin.

"Man, I wanna get to where that brother is."

Next rung. Khary Kimani Turner covers the hip-hop nation for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]. Kimani Turner writes about music for the Metro

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