I remember a few months ago I was at a bar in Boston called Biddy Early’s with some friends. It was a nice little place located in the Financial District with cheap drinks and a good atmosphere. On the wall behind behind our table sat a digital jukebox. I inserted a dollar and selected D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, the title track from his first album. When the song began, a wave of confusion washed over everyone at the bar. The looks on peoples’ faces confirmed that this music was a departure from the norm, but once the bass kicked in, everyone couldn’t help but move their feet. Pleased, I sat back and took a sip of my $1.50 PBR.
Buzzed and lost in a world of groovy elation, I didn’t notice that a guy on the other side of the bar had been waving his arms around frantically, shouting “WHO’S THE GUY THAT LIKES D’ANGELO!?” My friends noticed, though, and quickly pointed him in my direction. I made a friend that night, a jazz trumpet player by the name of Jon. After we talked about how great D’Angelo is for a while, Jon looked at me and said “if you like D’Angelo, you must be a musician”. He was right, I am a bass player. However, D’Angelo isn’t just for musicians. D’Angelo’s music is complex and real enough satisfy true musicians, but is also downright groovy and has an infectious feel that anyone can appreciate.
D’Angelo’s first album Brown Sugar debuted in 1995 with production, songwriting, arrangements and instrumentation handled primarily by D’Angelo himself. The music off of Brown Sugar is a bass player’s dream. With heavy backbeats, prominent bass lines and a definitive hip-hop swagger, listening to D’Angelo will make you feel cool as hell.
One song you should definitely check out is Brown Sugar, the title track of the album:
Like a lot of D’Angelo’s music, Brown Sugar revolves around a simple and largely unchanging groove. In this case there is a funky shuffle beat with an E minor bass line sitting deeply within it’s pocket. For you bass players out there, I really recommend learning this bass line. With only 4 notes (E, B, A and F), playing this deceptively simple line along to the song with help develop your intuitive sense of rhythmic feel that separates great bassists from average ones.
D’Angelo’s second (and final) album Voodoo was released in 2000 to great commercial success, selling over 1.7 million copies. Although critics regard this album as D’Angelo’s greatest work, I actually prefer Brown Sugar, which has a more accessible hip-hop feel overall. This is not to say Voodoo is a bad album, though. Featuring musicians like Pino Palladino, Raphael Saadiq, Charlie Hunter and Questlove, Voodoo is is without a doubt an album of intense musical muscularity.
The music on Voodoo is a lot more ambient than the music off of Brown Sugar and makes use of a lot more funk based guitar rhythms. You’ll also encounter aggressive multi-tracked vocals from D’Angelo, giving a thick, layered vocal effect on many tracks. While the music off of Brown Sugar made use of conventional song structures, Voodoo departs from that, sounding almost more like a polished jam session. Which is actually accurate because much of the album was live tracked.
The most successful single off the album is the sultry ballad Untitled (How Does it Feel):
What really does it for me with this song is, as you may have guessed, the bass. Raphael Saadiq lays down an incredibly simple bass line over the slow and sensuous 6/8 groove. His bass sits deeply within the pocket and just ever so slightly behind the beat, creating a pleasurable tension that propels you into the next chord. Oh, and D’Angelo’s vocals are ridiculous on this song, the man has a hell of a falsetto. Overall, this song is a classic, and although it might not be the most accurate representation of the rest of the album I think it is worth mentioning because it is arguably D’Angelo’s masterpiece.
side note: you may have heard of the music video for this song, which features D’Angelo naked with the camera cutting off just before his meat and potatoes. I didn’t link to that particular video, but you can find it if you are so inclined
I hope you give D’Angelo’s music a shot. I understand that a lot of the music that I like is inaccessible to most people, but D’Angelo is different. In my mind, everyone can find something to love about his songs. Whether it be the fat bass lines, virtuosic vocals or the ultra cool overall hip-hop vibe, I think you’ll be happy that you took my advice.