Since 1995, when he rolled out his platinum debut, Brown Sugar, many fans have seen Michael "D'Angelo" Archer as the divine soulman of the decade, a mysterious R&B scion who listens only to himself and the masters. In Brown Sugar, you could hear the dulcet facility of Curtis Mayfield, the luscious torture of Marvin Gaye, the storytelling grit of Bobby Womack, the complex friskiness of Al Green. While others wallowed in Prada and production techniques, this Virginia-born singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer existed somewhere above the radio-mad pack, an old-school crusader for new soul.
But what truly distinguished smashes like Brown Sugar and "Lady" — as well as deathless tracks like "Me and Those Dreamin' Eyes of Mine" and "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" — was not just the legacies of those past creators but D'Angelo's raw and off-kilter grip of them. And that command came from one famously non-classic source: hip-hop. D'Angelo's balance of song form and vocal performance with hip-hop scuzz and fuzz was virtually perfect. D'Angelo's sensual reinventions of small-combo sanctuary gospel was music for living, but it didn't belong on the coffee table.
D'Angelo has called Voodoo — the follow-up that he spent three years making — a groove-based record. And it's true that his new music moves him even further from R&B's typical song-based manners. On "Devil's Pie," an indictment of money worship, D'Angelo collaborates with Gang Starr's DJ Premier, a genius at repeating riffs. The track is all about a chunky bass line walking around in Timberlands; over it, D'Angelo kind of whispers, sings and buries his testimony. Like everything on Voodoo, except a bottom-heavy version of Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love" (performed with a barely audible Lauryn Hill) and the Prince-fed love gospel "Untitled," only a faint whiff of melody remains.
With Voodoo, D'Angelo and drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson — D'Angelo calls him the album's co-pilot — do for R&B what underground heads like Mos Def and ?uestlove's band, the Roots, do for hip-hop: They strip it down to just smarts, truth and beats. This is meant to be soul music that moves like smoke easing from a blunt. Pieces like "Left and Right," on which Method Man and Redman guest-rap, and "Playa Playa" are just gauzy keyboard vamps, ribboned with gospel harmonies, floating on air.
The problem is, Voodoo sounds so loose and unfinished, it floats right off into the clouds. "Chicken Grease" counsels against acting "uptight" and drifts away after a few shots of slow-funk rhythm guitar; "Spanish Joint" settles down into some quasi-Brazilian rhythms and brassy friction but goes nowhere special. "I'm going to stick to my guns," D'Angelo swears on "The Line," one of the album's overlong and boring attempts at getting really real.
"One Mo' Gin" concerns romantic reconciliation. It starts out with velvety organ work pulsating against wan percussion. D'Angelo sings a scattershot melody passionately, sweetly, like he can think of no more satisfying details. "I miss your smile," he sings, "your mouth, your laughter." With a line as elegant and urgent as that, you'd think the arrangement would be just as taut. It isn't; the music is so over-relaxed that you expect him to stop, break into some kind of light banter, then begin an actual song.
The twenty-year-old who made Brown Sugar five years ago was a guy bent on including the past in the present, without opening a retro-R&B museum. So, conceptually, Voodoo is a nice move, a reminder that D'Angelo never wanted to re-create some sort of soul heaven; it turns out he's just a gifted guy crazy about hip-hop and Marvin Gaye. But the fact that Voodoo is probably transitional doesn't change the fact that long stretches of it are unfocused and unabsorbing. For years, D'Angelo has heard that he's the real thing. But Voodoo flatters the real at the expense of the thing. The result is superb smoke, but smoke nonetheless.