D’Angelo’s life is the stuff of legend.
First, he was a prodigy and a prince who crafted his 1995 down-the-middle R&B-gospel opus Brown Sugar in his bedroom as a teenager. A few years later, he set up shop in Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan and assembled his second album, Voodoo. He brought with him the iconic rhythm section of drummer Questlove and bassist Pino Palladino, as well as other top-tier artists like trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Charlie Hunter, and producer and multi-instrumentalist Raphael Saadiq, to help him forge an album that today stands as the most essential neo-soul release of all time.
Voodoo constituted a warm, murky, and totally immersive meld of R&B, jazz, and hip-hop. Not only did it seamlessly blend genres, it marked an immaculate balance between D’Angelo’s ethereal vocals and Questlove & Palladino’s spare, earthy grooves, and it achieved both a profound looseness of rhythm and structure and a tightness afforded by D’Angelo and company’s vision and musicianship.
For a moment, D’Angelo was something of a superstar. He became considerably more famous following the release of Voodoo. Due in large part to the music video for his single “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” he quickly rose to the status of sex symbol. Uncomfortable with his new place, D’Angelo rejected his celebrity and virtually disappeared. The 14-year period before he would release his next album, Black Messiah, imbued Voodoo with a mythic sheen. In kind, Voodoo has become not only massively influential, but a perfect example of how one can integrate their own influences.
To honor the 20th anniversary of Voodoo, Highsnobiety spoke to a range of artists from R&B, hip-hop, and jazz (and some of the collaborators who brought the album into the world) about its genius and enduring appeal.
BLACK MILK, rapper and producer
First and foremost, D’Angelo is a student of artistry and music. So, when you listen to Voodoo, you’re listening to so much more than just a collection of songs. With that album, D introduced me to his influences, to the importance of studying those who came before and understanding who their influences were, and so on, until you get to the root of it all. As a teenager, that was one of the most important concepts I could have been introduced to. [It] has impacted my thought process and production process more than almost anything else.
Years later, I realized the reason Voodoo resonates so much with me is because it’s actually a GOSPEL album with soul, funk, and R&B influences. Growing up in a gospel/church environment and being super young in the ’90s, the soundscapes I heard on Voodoo were familiar to me, pretty much a part of my DNA, but the way D was fusing everything was new. The rhythms, the textures, the vocal delivery, and even the engineering choices were part of the sound. To me, the fact that he was both a student and such a gifted talent is why he was able to create something as original and impactful as Voodoo.
MOONCHILD, neo-soul band
Amber Navran: The first time I heard Voodoo, I felt like, ‘this is the music I’ve been searching for.’ It got me into writing songs and singing for the first time. The vocals and background vocals are flawless. The extensive vocal layering, harmonized riffs that accompany or play off of the melody play a bigger role in the songs than a lot of background vocals usually do. There’s so much going on vocally, but it never feels crowded, and every time you listen you hear new things. They feel so natural, creative, and intuitive at the same time.
Andris Mattson: The horn parts on this album by Roy Hargrove were a huge influence on me. The clustered voicings, the clean, close mic’d trumpet tone. It completely changed how I approached writing a horn part for a song.
Max Byrk: I keep coming back to Voodoo over and over again for the layers. There are so many levels of background vocals and instruments that I feel like I hear something new every time I listen. The way Russel Elevado makes space in the mix for all these intricate and subtle parts is just incredible and keeps me listening as a lifelong fan.
JOE ARMON-JONES, keyboardist
D’Angelo and all his albums have had a mad effect on my musical development without a doubt. But Voodoo is a special one. Everything about the process involved to make the album, the amount of money they ended up spending on tape reels for all D’Angelo’s vocal takes, the fact that everybody can sing the songs but nobody quite knows all the words. It’s an album where the mixing engineer and the artist have come together equally to work on a project, which is a rare thing to accomplish. Russell Elevado’s mixes on this album work on any speaker in the world; the music sounds good coming out of any speaker. That’s such a difficult thing to achieve.
MILES MARSHALL LEWIS, music critic
Voodoo is a crown jewel of the soul movement from my 20s. The songs soundtracked my life full of open bars and velvet ropes at the time. Voodoo holds up because the Dilla-influenced drag and swampy production took the record out of its moment into more of a timeless musical statement. With hindsight, we know now that D’Angelo wouldn’t drop another album for 14 years, which makes Voodoo even more iconic than we thought at the time.
[D’Angelo’s late manager] Dominique Trenier played me a preview of “Untitled” up at the Vibe offices in the summer of 1999 when I was music editor. The golden-era Prince vibes of the song excited me about the prospects of the whole record, and I was already a D’Angelo fan. A lot of the R&B audience initially heard Voodoo as too sharp a departure from Brown Sugar, but the more eclectic ears out there loved it right away.
VIVIAN SESSOMS, singer
I remember when Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life came out, and I remember when Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller albums came out. We were talking about Voodoo in those same hushed tones. To say it was an education is certainly an understatement.
On a cultural level, every now and then, a black artist emerges that just makes us feel damn good about who we are. And makes everybody that isn’t black want to be a part of that feeling, of being black so badly, if only for a time, just to have that real, true black experience of our music, and our culture, and of being a part of something so soulful… so smoky… so earthy…and so gorgeous… that when that artist sings their song, black people everywhere look at everybody else with that knowing look in their eyes, their heads cocked to the side like, ‘Yes, we have a secret and the secret is, yeah…it’s good to be us. This is who we are behind closed doors. This is us.’
JAMES POYSER, keyboardist on Voodoo
It was a cool period of hanging with my boys, playing some music that we loved to play, some stuff that took its cue from all the masters and all the music that we grew up listening to. D’Angelo just created something that took hints from the past but took it way in the future. It was a lot of fun, just going in the room and just jamming and playing what we felt.
I’ve always loved D’Angelo, but I experienced Voodoo live, at the Orpheum Theater in New Orleans, when I was younger. It was by far the most incredible sensation –musically, visually – that I had ever seen. At the time, I think Anthony Hamilton was background singing for him. The album moved me, but to see it live took it to a whole other level.
JUSTIN STANTON, trumpeter and keyboardist
I think [Voodoo] affected any musician that is involved in R&B and jazz and crossover between the two. But also, as a trumpet player, the presence of Roy Hargrove on that record really revolutionized a lot of the concepts of how horn-playing happens on records like that. It was just such a different concept. It really changed the game.
It feels like the parts are improvised. I’m no scholar on the record and certainly there’s people that know infinitely more about this record than me, but the way it feels to me, it sounds like he played improvised horn lines throughout the tune, and then came back and layered harmonies. It has a super organic feel, versus something like horn parts in Earth, Wind and Fire or Chicago or anything like that, where it’s super precise and arranged and in the pocket.
That record created a different pocket altogether from the rhythm section. Questlove and Pino, D’Angelo, but also the way Roy played. It’s the way the whole record feels. It’s hard to overstate the importance of that record.
BRASSTRACKS, production duo
Conor Rayne: I remember in college, Voodoo was like my top three albums to play along to. I found that immersing myself in that record really changed the way I thought about the drums. It just changed my life, really. And then when I got a little older, I did more research into recording techniques and everything that went into making a record. One thing I was inspired by was this article about how, in the studio, Questlove played really quietly. I think the engineer was saying, the softer you play, the more low-end frequencies you actually bring out of the drums. When I read that, it completely changed the way I played in studio.
Ivan Jackson: Roy [Hargrove] had an identity at the time that he was able to insert. As a trumpet player, not just a trumpet player. He was able to enter his own sound into a majorly funded R&B album. It was pretty amazing, and it created a blueprint for people like me, as a trumpet player, like, I think I can do a little bit more than be in the back of the band. So I would say that that seeps into the way that I play the trumpet. Any record that I’ve cut as a trumpet player, I want it to sound like me. I want to have a distinct voice, even if I’m playing a supportive role. Roy really created a new blueprint.
CHARLIE HUNTER, guitarist on Voodoo
I had no idea [what I was walking into]. I mean, it was just another session for me, to be totally honest. And those guys, they are incredible musicians, and it was a real honor for them to call me to do it. I learned a lot from those guys. They were really deeply, deeply invested in what they were doing.
NIC HANSON, singer
Voodoo is maybe my favorite album of all time. The biggest thing that I got from it was that feel is everything. How they all arranged [the instruments] together, the spatial awareness of that album – it was revolutionary to me when I first heard it.
My favorite part is the sequence from “The Root” to “Spanish Joint” to “Feel Like Making Love.” I saw him live in [Queens] a few years ago in 2015 and it was raining. And then the sun came out right in the middle of “Spanish Joint.” We were all just absolutely blown away.
KIEFER, pianist and producer
When I listen to this album, I hear Prince, I hear Curtis Mayfield. I hear Bill Withers. I’m hearing all kinds of amazing elements of black American music. I hear James Brown. I listened to this album and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a true master of black music.’
The musicianship on here is amazing. You have the best musicians all playing very tastefully. No one’s doing too much, everyone’s just hitting the vibe. Every single song has a character and a strong feeling that radiates from it.
JOSE JAMES, singer
To me, there’s like a before and after for my generation. Before Voodoo, after Voodoo. I think there’s always one album or maybe a couple albums that are sort of the synthesis of everything that’s happened before and that changes the landscape. And, you know, for everybody like me who was in jazz, but also grew up with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip and all of these hip-hop producers who were digging from jazz and classic soul, that album played live was just mind-blowing. To actually take the beats of J Dilla and work with producers that put it into analog. It was like the opposite. So for me, a huge Tribe Called Quest fan, it was like if you made a Tribe album but played all the instruments. I feel like people talk about the sound of his voice a lot, and the harmonies, but his phrasing, his rhythm is something that I go back to again and again.
KASSA OVERALL, drummer, rapper, and producer
Being somebody that came up playing jazz and live music and also beats and hip-hop and stuff, Voodoo was one of the first albums that blurred the lines. It kind of had the same texture of beats and production, but it also had the feeling of live music.
I think the thing that gives it a timeless feel is it wasn’t constrained to the sounds of the moment. It had a sentiment connected to timeless black sound.