When listening to the debut album from Virginia Born Singer/Songwriting/Instrumentalist D’Angelo it is hard to believe that it was released 20 years ago. This is a timeless collection of music and showed just what thee R&B genre could lean towards and actually move them music forward.
Sure it takes elements of the classic artists such as Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder but it lays it out in a way that you feel this artists would have approved — or even it is the style that they themselves would have gone with if they had been around in this era.
R&B in the early to mid nineties had been about mixing with Hip Hop and creating that New Jack Swing sound with the lyrical content often being about love and sex.
D’Angelo created a blueprint for what would be deemed as ‘Neo Soul’ which to me was just a phrase the media and the public needed to catogorise this music other than straight up soul music (which would be considered out of date) or R&B which would be considered too contemporary. In effect it was like black music for cool people.
D’Angelo along with Erykah Badu and Maxwell helped pioneer a R&B which could be taken seriously and would long be put in lists alongside Rock bands and singers.
The title track “Brown Sugar” kicks the album off. Despite being 20 years old and D’Angelo subsequently releasing two further albums it is this song which be forever synonymous with him whenever his name comes up in conversation.
“Brown Sugar” is as laid back a track that you will ever hear. It is so chilled to the point that it transforms you in to a smoky bar with D’Angelo on the keyboard as he plays out this Jazzy Soulful tune.
Lyrically he has great word play with a hint of humour.
“See, we be making love constantly
That’s why my eyes are a shade blood burgundy”
Its a brilliant song and one I’ve been playing for years and years. I suspect i’ll be playing for many more.
“Alright” is a song difficult for me to review objectivley as I used to to play this song constantly when I went to university. Whenever I hear it I automatically transform back to those early days when I was struggling with homesickness. The simple lyrics of “Everything’s Gonna be alright” was what I needed to hear at the time.
D’Angelo vocally is stunning on this track. He shows great range and has such a soulful tone to his voice which many have tried to emulate since.
“Jonz In My Bonz” is probably the most underwhelming track on the entire album. It doesn’t really lead anywhere other than to be a bit of funky feet tapping number.
“Me and Those Dreaming Eyes Of Mine” is a straight up love song but done in the way D’Angelo knows how. The song whilst simplistic in it’s message has the same vibe as the title track with that smooth Jazzy drum carrying the track through.
The lightness of the previous track is soon forgotten with the sinister “Shit Damn Motherfucker”. It’s not just the title which is there to shock but the lyrics tell the story of a man who has come home to find his wife in bed with his best freind. He asks the questions why are you sleeping with my woman and why are they both naked.
But the song takes a twist with the lyric:
“Why are both of you bleeding so much?”
He then asks why is he “wearing handcuffs” as it becomes clear that he has gone and killed both his wife and best friend for their betrayal. As the listener you are likely yourself to utter the words “Shit damn motherfucker”.
I mentioned that D’Angelo has a smooth way about him so he then goes and does a song called “Smooth”. The way D’Angelo presents himself is as if nothing can phase him and that women will just swoon to him but in this song he has met more than his match. He finds it hard to keep his cool as he loses his mind over this lady.
“I’m so used to getting what I want
When I want it, and where I want it
But in your field I’m inexperienced
So inexperienced, Baby I’m delirious”
“Crusin” is a cover of the song by Smokey Robinson. It’s really just more of an updated version of the song in which D’Angelo stays true to the song’s original formula. I always loved the lyrics to this song and love the Smokey Robinson version as his voice just melts over the sultry lyrics as does D’Angelo whose vocal fits this perfectly.
“When We Get By” is probably the best song on the album musically. Again it it evokes images of being in a small Jazz club with a cigar in one hand and perhaps an Old Fashioned in the other. D’Angelo seems so at ease with a song like this and his vocal is so serene he could be singing dishwasher instructions and it would still sound so very cool.
“Lady” is another song I find it difficult to be objective about considering how much the track has always meant to me. Music is there to take you back to a time and this does exactly at. “Lady” is one of my favourite songs of all time and the melody never fails to get into my heart. Great tune, great sound and just a great song.
The album finishes with “Higher”. It’s sadly a bit of a lackluster end to the album and I would question why this was given the billing as the album’s finale. It’s certainly more of a gospel sound he was going for on this track and when you listen to his follow up albums you don’t really get a song like it again as he veers deeper into a more indulgent sound which moves away from generic genres such as this type of track.
Whilst not a massive fan of the final song on the album this does not detract from what is a quite stunning album. “Brown Sugar” is not just a wonderful group of songs – its a seminal album which so many have been influenced by.