There are people who'll try to tell you that there's sex everywhere in mass culture -- in movies, television, music, books and advertising -- and if we allow that they're talking about sexual signifiers, they're not wrong. There's plenty of cleavage in ads; in television, there's no shortage of wink-wink, nudge-nudge innuendo; in pop music, there are more coochies to pop than time will allow.
But signifiers, by their very nature -- forget the fact that the word itself is so ugly -- are anything but sexy, and thus they have no power other than what we grant them. It's a great blessing that people who sell sex, or who use sex to sell anything, are considered the enemies of propriety in our culture. With all attention focused on them, the true sensualists can get down to business.
And D'Angelo can release another record.
It's the true sensualists who subvert the order of the culture, who sneak into our dreams and make us behave -- or want to behave -- in ways that go against the grain of "proper" society. True sensuality is rarely an obvious feature of the mass culture. The whole point of sensuality -- the unnameable something that's actually much dirtier, much more beautiful and much more potent than, say, cleavage in a liquor ad -- is that it has to creep up behind you. It moves slow. Light kills it; it can't exist in the glare of day. But it can turn day into night in an instant.
D'Angelo made his audience wait -- and wait -- for "Voodoo," the follow-up to his 1995 debut LP, "Brown Sugar." Why rush twilight? In fact, why rush anything? From the first track, "Voodoo" is a record that insists you come to it. Sometimes it's very overtly about sex: It wouldn't carry that parental advisory sticker if it weren't. And it does have its share of signifiers. What else would you call a lyric like "I'll even kiss you way down there"?
But like the records made by the young Prince, or by the older Marvin Gaye, "Voodoo" is so deeply sensual that it goes far beyond the mere concept of sex. It's the kind of record that shows much more than it tells. D'Angelo has drawn a line between himself and the current hip-hop aristocracy: He's adamant about not categorizing himself as a hip-hop artist, and his liner notes for "Voodoo" (biting, perceptive and articulate, they make for pretty good reading by themselves) damn his peers for their devotion to making money at the expense of mastering their craft.
It's telling, too, that he's one of the few R&B artists who's likely to pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix in the same breath as Sly Stone, Gaye and Prince. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, he hears Hendrix as the sensualist he was, not as a freak who made weird rock 'n' roll primarily for white people. Hendrix may have been a freak, but only in the sense that people with any grasp of the nature of eroticism are often viewed as such: It's the punishment you get for being able to bend a note just so, for being able to re-create with strings the gentle shudder that works its way up the curve of a spine when it's touched just the right way, by just the right fingertip.
Little wonder D'Angelo sees Hendrix as a giant, "a sonic Bill Gates," vested with the right kind of riches and an unfathomable amount of power. But even if you don't read the liner notes, you can hear in the space of a heartbeat how D'Angelo is really a soul artist in the old-fashioned sense. He's preoccupied with sex, absolutely, but his simmering fervidness is a way of life, not a form of macho posturing. And "Voodoo" isn't a concept record in the same way that Beck's "Midnite Vultures" is. That record's show-biz seductiveness is precisely what makes it appealing. "Voodoo" is seduction without calculation (and yes, there is such a thing), heavy petting that lures you to the moon before you realize you've even left the ground.
In short it is, as its name suggests, all about magic. D'Angelo calls these songs "incantations," and that's the perfect description for them -- they do all their work beneath the surface, before you even know what's happening. As a singer, D'Angelo just goes wherever the mood takes him. His butter-caramel smoothness goes down easy on "Playa Playa" and "Devil's Pie." And his flirtatious falsetto on "The Line" isn't a straight-ahead seduction; instead, he's working within a longstanding vocal tradition to assert his supremacy among his peers. It's hard to imagine that he's not singing about his dedication to practicing his craft honestly when he sings, in a voice that has its origins in the gospel risers, "I am going to hold, hold on, to my pride ... I'm gonna put my finger on the trigger/I'm gonna pull it and we're gonna see what the deal." But it's also a woman's voice. When D'Angelo boasts, he plugs right into his feminine side -- he has no interest in macho bluster -- and ends up sounding more masculine, and more confident, than ever.
That's not to say that D'Angelo is never aggressive. Even so, his invitations to debauchery are always just that: invitations. On "Left and Right," he leaves it to his guests, Wu-Tang Clan's Method Man and Redman, to talk about the cruder specifics ("Who's got the biggest ass in the house?") while he works his velvety tongue around the subtleties -- and if his talent lies anywhere, it's in his ability to make a line like "Smack your ass, pull your hair," read like a subtlety. Other times, as on "The Root," he takes pleasure in his very powerlessness in the face of womankind. "She done worked a root," he muses, almost in disbelief, but not without a measure of delight. "Left my mojo in my favorite suit."
After his voice, D'Angelo's second secret weapon is his skill at layering sound textures, building them bit by bit like the narrative in a novel or a movie. The fat, ropy bass line that kicks in near the beginning of "Playa Playa" gets extra body from fingersnaps and chanting that sounds like it's coming from some deep-in-the-forest reaches of the subconscious. Roy Hargrove's mellow rose-gold trumpet fills sneak into all the right corners. On "Chicken Grease," D'Angelo leans into a deep bass-heavy groove, only half-suggesting some of the words: In some places they're like a charcoal sketch, a flowing line broken softly here and there where the chalk skipped off the paper. In other places, the words touch down lightly but resolutely. They're more like a percussion element than anything else.
But in the end, it probably isn't the craftsmanship of "Voodoo," as wonderful as it is, that's most alluring. Without even considering that they might be a mismatch, D'Angelo melds spirituality with carnality, just as seamlessly as Prince ever did. For many of us, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince was the first singer to make us seriously consider what happens to a man's sensuality when he goes to pray. His love for one couldn't be divorced from his love for the other.
D'Angelo's "Africa," the album's gorgeous, opalescent closer, is a prayer of sorts, a song about finding a spiritual home in the midst of geographical displacement, and of passing that sense of belonging on to one's children. It opens with a shimmery rustle of chimes that conjures the delicate fluttering of snowflakes -- a beautiful little paradox in itself. "Africa is my descent," D'Angelo explains, "and here I'm far from home."
"Africa" is almost a lullaby. But what's most remarkable about it is that even here, D'Angelo doesn't do anything to muffle his sense of himself as a sexual creature. "The blood of God is my defense/Let it drop down to my seed," he sings gently, a line that links sexual congress with God's might pretty straightforwardly. What does a man do with his sensuality when he goes to pray? If he's D'Angelo, he keeps it close to where he lives. He knows no other way.