D’Angelo is cut from a heavier cloth than the majority of his New Jack brethren: He’s a singer/songwriter with a mellifluous, sturdy voice that can coo and growl with equal conviction. He’s no trailblazer — Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Prince have all walked down the same musical paths where D’Angelo meanders. Yet he manages to build on the examples of the masters. No matter how delicate or dusty sounding a track may be, D’Angelo flips the script with B-boy savoir-faire: He makes the nasty rhythms bubbling underneath his multilayered love songs seem old and new at the same time. Call him an ndegéocello (Swahili for “free as a bird”), a rebel soul.
The title track, “Brown Sugar,” oozes into the ears with dark, gooey, molasses-like texture. Bolstered by the smoky sounds of a tricky old stage organ, D’Angelo sets the mood here for the rest of his album; his highly agile falsetto vocals merge with the gutbucket rhythm mélange. Like lotion applied to dry skin, this sonic combination leaves a high gloss that absorbs and distributes melodic heat without leaving a burn. Despite clever hooks, “Alright” and “Jonz in My Bonz” suffer from their lack of coherent lyrical or melodic structure — they’re little more than funkafied filler. But the album’s centerpiece efforts, “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine,” “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker” and “Cruisin’,” prove that there is some mettle behind D’Angelo’s retrograde stylistics. “Dreamin'” cuts loose an ethereal groove colored with live drums and meaty rhythm guitar that extends for eternity; the sinister “Motherfucker” underwhelms with its subtlety but becomes more intriguing once you realize the smoove lyrics are about an O.J.-like lover killing his best friend and wife. “Cruisin'” strokes the Smokey Robinson blue-light classic with D’Angelo’s own touch but doesn’t ruffle it.
D’Angelo keeps moving forward even when he’s looking in the rearview mirror. Like his fellow retrolutionaries Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Joi, Omar and Dionne Farris, he’s shattering the conventional definition of “black music.” It doesn’t have to be a lackluster genre in which format, not content, determines heavy rotation.
Brown Sugar is a reminder of where R&B has been and, if the genre is to resurrect its creative relevance like a phoenix rising from the ashes, where it needs to go.