Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience is billed as the comeback album of 2013. For good reason, too. The project signals a return to music for one of the biggest pop stars of the past quarter century. The birth of an album that seemed far more fantasy than reality 12 months ago. And the chance for rarefied air by releasing what has the opportunity to be a third consecutive groundbreaking album. The funny thing is, though, those exact qualities reflect another immensely talented, reclusive singer.
D’Angelo and myself hail from the same area of Virginia. With his roots in Richmond and mine in a small town named Ettrick some 25 minutes south, we’ve always been connected in that aspect. Virginia – for all the talent the state has produced in the likes of Teddy Riley, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Chris Brown, Trey Songz, the Clipse and so forth – D’s placement, or lack thereof, in music’s hierarchy has long since been a book waiting to pen its final chapters.
Such is the reason why the forthcoming and tentatively titled James River holds an added sense of importance and pride. And such was the reason upon hearing Questlove was a key contributor to the project’s progression, I let loose a vintage Tiger Woods fist pump. Quest has never come off as a bullshitter or someone enamored with his own voice. “He’s the only person that I’ll actually go to the studio with and stay there to six in the morning, re-doing these drum parts. I won’t even do that for my own band, but I’ll do it for him. Right now, we’re just tightening up the loose ends,” said Quest earlier this year. When I read that, I was reassured that this project was actually happening.
The music business moves quickly, swallowing its own quicker than it births them in most cases. What’s hot today is yesterday’s trending topic. What’s yesterday’s trending topic is irrelevant. D’Angelo, however, has never been most cases. Still, he finds himself 13 years removed since 2000’s Voodoo and nearly 18 years since Brown Sugar (meaning kids born in 1995 are graduating high school this year). Timeless music sticks to the ribs like the chewing gum your grandmother told you not to swallow because it harbors the ability to perform what science has failed – time travel. Perhaps it’s a person, a place, a time in life or a combination of the trio. Whatever the case may be, D’Angelo’s music and his talent are an embodiment of such combination.
Classic pieces of work not only reveals a look into an artist’s soul, but also teaches you a little about yourself in the process. Brown arrived after my ninth birthday meaning an authentic appreciation wasn’t developed until years later. Subsequently, Voodoo unofficially became a soundtrack for my high school and early college years. Now, at a different point in life with different priorities and responsibilities, one can only hope James River restores the feeling and confirms what I’ve known in my heart all along.
D’Angelo is/was/could have/should have been one of the greatest musical talents of my lifetime; my generation’s Marvin Gaye.
Personal demons and industry politics have no doubt helped play a part in the sabbatical. It’s the reason why rumors of a new album surfacing in 2009 never did much to stir the pot. The rigors of fame, expectations and self-conceived doubts have derailed many a talented spirits throughout the years, as they will continue to. Despite what FM dials and photos of club pictures suggests, pain is the cause for a lot of great music. A lot of failed opportunities, too.
Yet, the emergence of rave reviews from D and Quest’s recent NYC show and Action Bronson admitting he, too, felt like a groupie helped re-energize what this one Virginia kid has been praying for going over two decades now.
In terms of mythical albums, D’Angelo’s – from a personal perspective only – ranks higher than Lauryn Hill’s follow-up to Misedcuation; a career and album I’ve come to accept over the years mirrors that of Bill Walton’s – unfathomably amazing for a short period of time, but never sustained its dominance for an assortment of reasons (bad feet, kids, weed, batshit craziness). It ranks higher than Dr. Dre’s Detox, which left my realm of interest nearly five years ago and Dre’s following one mega-business venture after another. It even ranks slightly higher than an OutKast return; a project seemingly on life support, if there was ever a heartbeat to begin with.
I don’t know what it is. Maybe I see D’Angelo’s return to music how I see my own career in writing – both taking time to truly materialize. Maybe I’m guilty of hometown bias. Maybe it’s seeing him absolutely rip “Tell Me If You Still Care” to shreds live at Brooklyn Bowl. And perhaps, there’s a running chance D’Angelo and Questlove deliver on what has been in the making since Voodoo, one of the 500 greatest pieces of musical work in the history of human existence.
Rolling Stone’s Matthew Trammell noted following the show in Brooklyn earlier this week, “…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.”
Excellent. Now, the long-awaited sigh of relief. Virginia and music’s next great classic is on the horizon. Hopefully.
D’Angelo & Questlove – “Tell Me If You Still Care” (Live At The Brooklyn Bowl, March 2013)