“My name is Questlove, so I know I get love,” the Roots’ cheerful drummer beckoned during his Brooklyn Bowl show with D’Angelo on Monday night. “But please, please, let him know that he is loved!” The sold-out crowd bellowed in response, as Quest’s plea weighed more than the standard “make some noise!” chants heard at any rap show – love was the currency of the evening, and for R&B visionary and decade-long recluse D’Angelo, it was his also his crutch, his oxygen.
The story is well-documented: after his Grammy-nominated debut, Brown Sugar, seeped from every Land Cruiser and project window during the Summer of ’95, and his follow-up, Voodoo, established him as a sex symbol and musical virtuoso, D’Angelo crumbled under the pressure of his own greatness. Tours collapsed, his physical appearance deteriorated and crippling depression drove him to drugs. Questlove hasn’t been shy about the painful dynamics of their relationship: after shacking up in the studio with D’Angelo for months to craft Voodoo, a period he’s described as their “college years,” the two musicians became incredibly close, and Questlove acted as producer, manager and confidant during the singer’s darkest period. The depth of this relationship showed onstage Monday, as the duo traded encouraging glances, quick whispers and deep laughs throughout their hour-plus set. “They’re so cute together, I love it!” one female whispered to her homegirl toward the end of their set – for all the couples snuggling on the dancefloor, Questlove and D’Angelo’s chemistry felt more intimate.
With D’Angelo stationed behind a rack of thick Rhodes keyboards on one end of the stage and Questlove stomping kicks and pounding snares at the other, the duo recreated the loose, improvisational feel of the storied Voodoo jam sessions. D’Angelo arrived confident but reserved, slinking between his boards and seasoning his chords with tightly coiled vocal runs that felt even more pained than the material he’d recorded years prior. His voice was as round and smoky as we all remembered, and he was liberal with screams, bellows and falsettos – not one note was off. Between songs, he offered little more than “Thank you, Brooklyn,” and “I love you,” and a lone microphone rested atop a stand at center stage, but he never stepped near it. This wasn’t a comeback concert; it was a workout between sparring partners.
Questlove is currently teaching a course at NYU that aims to contextualize classic albums with special attention to the oft-underrepresented black music canon. His lesson plan spilled to the stage on this night: the duo eschewed D’Angelo’s flagship singles and instead riffed through covers of Bobby Womack, Sly and the Family Stone and a wrenching rendition of S.O.S Band’s “Tell Me If You Still Care,” during which D’Angelo led a sing-along that stretched to the back of the venue. Their set recalled that mid-Nineties moment of invigorating equilibrium in black music, where D’Angelo and his peers Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Lauryn Hill flipped hip-hop on its head with a dignified, complex reimagining of its soulful building blocks. D’Angelo pulled selectively from his own catalogue, touching on deep cuts like “The Root,” “It’s Alright” and “Africa” but leaning nowhere near his swan song, “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” His most telling number was “The Line,” whose lyrics felt prophetic: “I’ve been gone, gone so long/Just wanna sing, sing my song/I know you’ve been hearing a lot of things about me,” he sang with a smile. “I know, I’ve heard it all too clear.”
After disappearing backstage and prompting a raucous call for an encore, Questlove and D’Angelo reemerged. “This is our last song, so you better enjoy it! If you don’t make noise, you’ll have to wait till 2042,” Quest teased, and the duo launched into “Lady” and set the room ablaze. D’Angelo’s chords dripped over the iconic bass line, and every ad-lib was in place (“My divine, my divine!”). But there was no triumphant 20-minute solo, no grandiose over-emphasis of the moment: after they wrapped, D’Angelo took a few moments to shake hands with adorers in the front row and humbly dipped toward the curtain before Questlove called him back. “D, is the album almost done?” he asked, and D’Angelo answered with a smirk: “. . .Yes.” He then gave the crowd one more kiss goodnight, shuttled backstage, and collapsed into the arms of his team of supporters. He could finally breathe.