Brown Sugar


album cover

An Early Shot of Neo-Soul

When he first appeared, with the slinky single "Brown Sugar" in 1995, the keyboard player and singer D'Angelo talked like a man on a mission. Though certifiably part of the hip-hop generation, this unknown commodity proclaimed himself bored with the entrenched urban music formula—moderately funky repetitive hooks with a rap interlude in the middle. He wanted a different kind of revolution, he said. One powered by live instruments (not sampled grooves) and a respect for the titans of vintage R&B.

In a way, the Richmond, Virginia, native was the R&B equivalent of jazz traditionalist—a loud advocate for the music's frequently discarded core values. But he wasn't a scold; in fact, he oozed pure honey. Singing in a restrained way that earned him comparisons to Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, D'Angelo, who was twenty-one at the time, made persuasion—not some muscle-flexing supremacy—his primary goal. Within a year of its release, Brown Sugar was widely acknowledged as a catalyst of the neo-soul movement.

The rapture-seeking whoos and ahhhs are not the whole story, however. In the middle of "Brown Sugar," where a hit-minded producer would likely drop in the rap cameo, D'Angelo tucks in eight delicious bars of skating-rink organ. It's hardly assertive enough to be called a solo—really, this is the son of a Pentecostal minister, just pawing around on the keys—but it allows the music to breathe. Virtually every one of the tracks has a similar instrumental touch or some slight rhythm section punch that sends things a tad outside the ordinary. One shining example is "Me and Those Dreamin' Eyes of Mine": Atop a bomping syncopation, D'Angelo multitracks his voice into a choir, then rolls through a series of choreographed vocal ad-libs in the style of Marvin Gaye. Understated and devastatingly funky, this restrained vocal performance is one for the ages.

After the success of Brown Sugar, D'Angelo took five years to release a follow-up. There's lots to admire about Voodoo—the sound is richer, the grooves are mercilessly tight, the harmony vocals intensely ornate. But the album suffers from the modern urban-music plague: They're great jams waiting for a song to show up. This album has the songs, too.

Genre: R&B
Released: 1995, EMI
Key Tracks: "Cruisin'," "Brown Sugar," "Me and Those Dreamin' Eyes of Mine."
Collector's Note: When this was released, a very limited number of vinyl pressings were circulated to club DJs. The vinyl version offers a much fuller mix than is available on CD.
Catalog Choice: Voodoo
Next Stop: Van Hunt: Van Hunt
After That: Omar: For Pleasure
Book Pages: 204–205

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