When we learned back in January that D’Angelo was on the verge of making a comeback, I knew dude had sort of fallen on hard times while being off the cultural radar, but I’d no idea that he’d basically hit rock bottom, or how it happened. And when I say rock bottom I mean fat, living in seclusion and addicted to various chemical substances, as he details in a new interview with GQ — his first interview in a dozen years. So yeah, D’Angelo hit rock bottom, and how he got there is pretty mind-boggling.
By the time he careened off a lonely stretch of road near Richmond, Virginia, in September 2005, hitting a fence and rolling his Hummer three times, he’d already failed two stints in rehab—including one where his counselor was Bob Forrest, the guy on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Bob had been cool, D’Angelo says, but his message of sobriety didn’t take. “I went in under a fake name so people wouldn’t know who I was, right?” D’Angelo tells me, in his first sit-down interview in twelve years. “So, you know, Michael never got treatment. It was this other character that was in there. And the moment I left, I went straight to the fucking liquor store.”
Which helps explain why, months later, high on cocaine and drunk off his ass, D’Angelo found himself ejected from his car on that balmy Virginia night, hurtling through the pitch-blackness, flying. When he hit the ground, he broke all the ribs on his left side—and dealt another blow to his foundering career. Once he’d been the heir apparent to the giants of soul: Marvin, Stevie, Prince. (The rock critic Robert Christgau was so transported by D’Angelo’s live show that he called him R&B Jesus.) But shortly after the wreck, discussions ended with several top music executives, including Clive Davis at J Records, who’d been considering signing him to a $3 million contract. Then D’Angelo’s manager told him he was done with him, too.
What led to this? As crazy as it sounds, the pressure of being viewed as a bit of a sex god had a lot to do with it. Women wanting D’Angelo to take off his shirt during performances began messing with his head…
D’Angelo felt tortured, Questlove says, by the pressure to give the audience what it wanted. Worried that he didn’t look as cut as he did in the video (for “Untitled”), he’d delay shows to do stomach crunches. He’d often give in, peeling off his shirt, but he resented being reduced to that. Wasn’t he an artist? Couldn’t the audience hear the power of his music and value him for that? He would explode, Questlove recalls, and throw things. Sometimes he’d have to be coaxed not to cancel shows altogether.
When I ask D about this, he downplays his suffering. Watching him pull hard on another Newport, I realize that he finds it far easier to confess his addictions than his insecurities about his corporeal self. Self-destructing with a coke spoon—while ill-advised—has a badass edge. Fretting over what Questlove has called “some Kate Moss shit” seems anything but manly. If given the chance, he tells me, he would absolutely shoot the video (for “Untitled”) again. But he does admit to feeling angry during the Voodoo tour.
On the last day of the eight-month tour, Questlove says D’Angelo told him, “Yo, man, I cannot wait until this fucking tour is over. I’m going to go in the woods, drink some hooch, grow a beard, and get fat.” Questlove thought he was joking. “I was like, ‘You’re a funny guy.’ And then it started to happen. That’s how much he wanted to distance himself.”
If that weren’t enough, the piece also contains this great anecdote about D’Angelo spurning Madonna’s aggressive advances back in the day…
When Madonna turned 39, she asked him to sing “Happy Birthday” at her party. One press report had her sitting on his lap and French-kissing him. In fact, two sources say that ultimately D rebuffed her advances at another gathering not long after. At that event, the sources say, Madonna walked over and told a woman sitting next to D, “I think you’re in my seat.” The woman got up. Madonna sat down and told him, “I’d like to know what you’re thinking.” To which D replied, “I’m thinking you’re rude.”
Welcome back, D’Angelo. Being a piece of ass ain’t easy. Just try to be cool with it like we are.