Untitled (An Oral History of D'Angelo)
Talking to friends, collaborators, and colleagues to connect the dots between D'Angelo the artist and D'Angelo the man.
Illustrations by Anna Khachiyan
On a May afternoon, D'Angelo, sitting calmly with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, stared into Questlove's eyes, expressing disapproval.
Moments earlier, Quest, a frequent collaborator, had hopped onstage during a Red Bull Music Academy-sponsored talk hosted by author Nelson George, and brought up D'Angelo's third album, now 14 years in the making. George and D skirted the topic and quickly called an end to an otherwise positive chat, providing no updates on what has become the Chinese Democracy of our time. For D'Angelo's countless, endlessly patient fans, this was nothing new.
Born Michael Eugene Archer, D’Angelo is one of the true enigmas of modern music. His two albums, 1995’s breezy Brown Sugar and 2000's virtuosic Voodoo, transcended the traditional notions of soul, hip-hop, and pop, and positioned D as a symbol of hope for urban music (the critic Robert Christgau referred to him as “R&B Jesus"). Soon enough, however, he quickly found himself bristling against the pressures of fame and notoriety.
Following the release of the video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)," which established D’Angelo as a sex symbol, and the tumultuous Voodoo Tour that followed in its wake, the artist sentenced himself to a decade-and-a-half sabbatical filled with legal troubles, obsessive work on his still-unreleased third album, and scant public appearances.
In an attempt to shed some light on both D’Angelo the artist and Michael Archer the man, I embarked on a quest to talk to his friends, collaborators, and critics about a creator who made sense of a pre-Y2K world by channeling funk and feelings into timeless music, despite never quite learning to make sense of himself.
To outsiders, D can be seen as lazy and unreliable, with enablers like Questlove who drop in every two to three years to give us false promises of a looming album. But by all accounts from the people who actually know him, he's the opposite. For over a decade, he's been stuck in his own hell, working hard to find the sounds only he could hear and deliver an album of the highest possible quality to his fans.
Robert Christgau: Self-anointed “Dean of American Rock Critics,” who worked for over three decades as the music editor of The Village Voice, and has since been published in Esquire, Rolling Stone, Newsday, and more.
Jocelyn Cooper: Former music executive who signed D'Angelo to his first deal as a songwriter and producer. Currently a partner of Afropunk Festival.
Tina Farris: Tour manager for The Roots and Assistant Tour Manager for D'Angelo.
Lee Foster: Partner/General Manager of Electric Lady Studios, where D'Angelo recorded Voodoo and his unreleased third album.
Gary Harris: Former music executive instrumental in the release of D'Angelo's debut album via EMI Music.
Mark Jenkins: Physical trainer who worked closely with D'Angelo in the late 1990's.
Alan Leeds: D'Angelo's tour manager and Prince’s former tour manager.
Kevin Liles: Music industry veteran who signed D'Angelo to a management deal via his KWL Management.
DJ Premier: Legendary hip-hop producer and one half of Gang Starr. Produced "Devil's Pie" on D'Angelo's Voodoo.
Questlove: Close friend of D'Angelo's and frequent collaborator on Voodoo and the forthcoming third album. Also the drummer of The Roots.
Redman: Veteran rapper. Appears on Voodoo's "Left & Right" as one of the album’s two guest vocalists.
DISCOVERY AND DEBUT
In 1993, an 18-old Michael "D'Angelo" Archer, then a member of hip-hop group IGU, was discovered by Jocelyn Cooper, A&R at Midnight Music, who went on to sign D as a songwriter-producer. Within a year, he scored a gig writing and producing R&B group Black Men United's "U Will Know," and quickly established himself as a behind-the-scenes wunderkind. Meanwhile, the musician was quietly pursuing a solo career, toying with song ideas in his Virginia bedroom and recording sketches to a 4-track. Those recordings would form the backbone of his debut solo album, Brown Sugar, a versatile effort that showcased a new take on R&B. Littered with marijuana references—which would go on to garner him plenty of love in the hip-hop world—soulful courtship ballads, and a tongue-in-cheek slow jam about the imagined double homicide of his girlfriend and friend who was fucking his girlfriend, Brown Sugar was an introduction to an undeniable talent. D would go on to tour the record, though as he was still building his confidence as a performer in his own right, delivered his music largely from behind a piano.
Jocelyn Cooper: [D'Angelo] was the first writer that I signed in 1993. He was in a group called IGU, and the members of IGU came to my office and played some music, and I loved it. I asked them who the producer was and they all came back with [D'Angelo] a couple weeks later. He was just so unique. He sat down and played the piano for me, a couple ballads, in my office. It was amazing and it just had a mix—it was hip-hop and it was funk and it was soul. I had the privilege of going down to Virginia and seeing him in his home and in his music room, which was this little closet where he had produced all these amazing sounds and samples on an EPS-16+. I mean, he had no money. When he first started, we got him a lot of covers in film and in television, and he was producing records before his album came out. He had a number of other covers that were released before Brown Sugar came out.
Kevin Liles: To hear his vocal arrangements and the way he produced and wrote, it was just a fresh sound. He was just an all-around musician, and he just wanted to make great music. And when you find art, you want to put it in the Smithsonian Institute, you don't just want it in some obscure place and pigeon-held to a certain sound, you want the world to see it. That's what attracted me to him.
Questlove: I had lost faith in modern R&B. What was lacking for me was musicianship. Not since Prince had any black singer floored me musically the way D'Angelo did. There were plenty of great singers, but their music was mundane. From his keyboard patches to his sloppy, human-like drum programming, I felt like I had a kindred spirit and I wanted to be down.
DJ Premier: I met D'Angelo because we were labelmates. Me and Guru used to always run through the new stuff that was coming through. When Arrested Development came, we were the first to hear them. Then same thing with D'Angelo, like, "He plays all the instruments and he could sing and he looks like he's from the street with the braids, and this that and third, and he's got a really soulful voice." They played us his demo and "Brown Sugar,” and then I saw that he was referencing smoking trees. At that time, we were all avid weed promoters.
Redman: I hadn't heard nothing like "Brown Sugar" in my life. Talking about bud. I felt was ballsy to do in R&B, and it was fucking fabulous. He mixed it as a female. It was genius. I became a fan, just from the marijuana relation that he had. And then the music on top of that, when the album came out and I heard more songs, lyrically and as an artist, he's fucking ridiculous. Grounded with his sound, expertise on his singing notes, music complements everything, he complements the music, the band, the vibe, everything was just fabulous.
Robert Christgau: I had my doubts. I thought he was good. I thought he was better than Maxwell, who would get the same kind of talk at more or less the same time, but not quite as loud or as enthusiastic.
Alan Leeds: I actually first saw [D'Angelo] on a show I was doing with Morris Day & the Time in Houston. I got a chance to see D and I was reasonably impressed, but anybody who saw his first appearances… he wasn't really touring, he had a small band that was quite good. But he basically sat at a piano, wasn't very animated. And I kind of went away looking at him as a modern day Donny Hathaway, because I didn't see a lot else.
Cooper: He'd been performing since he was three years old. I knew that it was going to blossom into something else.
Following Brown Sugar and its subsequent tour, D'Angelo was embraced by a community of like-minded musicians responsible for a creative renaissance in hip-hop and R&B. Most important among them was Questlove of The Roots, who would go on to serve as the spiritual director of D's second album, Voodoo. Recorded entirely in New York’s Electric Lady Studios, Voodoo stood as the creative centerpiece of a collective movement that also birthed Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, and The Roots’ Things Fall Apart. Marked by loose instrumentations delivered by a team of virtuosic talents, stream-of-consciousness songwriting, and obsessively layered background textures, Voodoo was a singular statement from an artist firing on all cylinders. The help didn't hurt either, as D and Quest employed an all-star case of session musicians to help bring their vision to life. Over four years, producers J Dilla, Q-Tip, and DJ Premier, rappers Method Man and Redman, bassist Pino Palladino, guitarist Mike Campbell, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and many more contributed to the album, which won the 2001 Grammy for Best R&B Album and has since gone platinum.
Cooper: [The transition between Brown Sugar and Voodoo] was really about the sound engineer and Questlove, who came into D's life around that time. Being able to experiment with Quest and have money to just stay in the studio and really do his thing, he evolved as a performer and as an artist and as a songwriter.
Questlove: It is important to note that we never once said, “This is an official track.” Actually, correction: "Send It On" was the only official track made. Everything else was created through hours of jamming and sourcing. These jams would last for about five hours. The engineer, Russ Elevado, would keep note of what parts we were excited about on a DAT recorder. After the sessions we'd sit back and listen. Sometimes we would cut and paste ("The Root," "Greatdayndamornin’"), but most times we'd re-record until perfection was achieved ("Chicken Grease," "The Line").
Lee Foster: It seemed to me that my co-workers were D'Angelo and Badu and The Roots. They'd been holding down [Electric Lady] for a few years at that point. I remember it being really communal. You would see Questlove go back to a D'Angelo session, and D'Angelo go upstairs to a Badu session, and Nas would come through. Mos Def was here a lot. Common was here a lot. They were a group of people who had decided absolutely that this was the sort of mechanism to help them create and record and document what they were doing. And they just took it over.
DJ Premier: Electric Lady, it's Jimi Hendrix's studio. You walk in and D'Angelo's got the atmosphere set up. He had The Isley Brothers' album cover posted up. He had Prince's 1999, the inside insert of him and The Revolution. Then he had Jimi Hendrix albums and Grand Central Station and Sly And The Family Stone. All these dope bands. And he said, "I leave all that up so I can be inspired and make that type of funky music."
Questlove: I didn't know we were making history, but something was abrew at Electric Lady. Soon thereafter, every artist wanted to record in that area, just hoping for a little bit of inspiration.
Foster: There were times when [D'Angelo] would have the whole [Electric Lady] building locked out. He would have all three rooms as his, and the upstairs room felt like when you walk in to a daycare and there's just toys everywhere. There was every single instrument you could imagine, just laying on the floor. He could literally just walk around and grab things. I was just like, "Is this normal?"
Redman: They called our manager [about working with D on "Left & Right"], but when our manager told us, it wasn't even a question. He ain't even have to ask us. It was like, "Yo, D'Angelo said it. Yes." It could've been like, "D'Angelo asked for you to carry his bags for the next tour." I would've been like, "Yes!"
DJ Premier: The first song I ever heard him play from Voodoo was "One Mo’gin" and I was like, "Yo man, it's so funky." He understands how to apply the funk. That's not something everyone can attain. It's like George Clinton said, "Funk not only moves, it can remove." I'm from that planet of Once Upon A Time Called Now… and not everybody can come from that planet. Believe me—D'Angelo is not from Earth.
Questlove: At the time when Voodoo was released and I saw James Hunter's harsh three-star lead review in Rolling Stone, I had to come to grips with myself that not everybody would understand this vision. As an artistic achievement, I felt absolutely vindicated when we started playing the record for people and saw their initial reactions. I must note that it went over a lot of people's heads. I suddenly realized that there's a difference between those that use music for art purposes and those who use it for general background purposes.
Christgau: Voodoo, both the women in my household—my daughter and my wife—loved the way the bass was used in that record, and they were really quite vocal about it.
FROM SOUL TO SEX ON THE VOODOO TOUR
To go along with his creative rebirth surrounding Voodoo, D’Angelo also transformed physically, teaming up with physical trainer Mark Jenkins to get into literal fighting shape. The music video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” effectively served as the public’s reintroduction to the artist—D, a onetime slightly overweight soul singer who stayed behind the piano during shows, appeared in the video shirtless and unbelievably fit, the camera circling his near-nude body like a shark stalking its prey. By the time he toured Voodoo in March of 2000, many women attended shows for the sole purpose of getting a glimpse of D’Angelo the Sex Symbol, yelling for him to take his shirt off within moments of starting his set.
Mark Jenkins: I had been training D's publicist at the time, who was a real slim guy and I put a certain amount of muscle mass on him, to the extent where D noticed, and he was like, "Can you train me?" To his credit, he gave me control, so what I told him to eat, he ate, and what I told him to drink, he drank. We trained really hard. Real intense training. And his body started to change.
Leeds: I got a call right as [D’Angelo] was finishing the Voodoo album, asking if I was available to manage his Voodoo Tour. What I saw at the first rehearsal was mind-blowing. Once I saw [D] actually rehearse the performance—get up from the keyboards, work the front of the stage, I was astounded because I had absolutely no reason to expect that he had that in him. It was beyond just stage presence, to the point where you start thinking of James Brown and Prince and that whole lineage. I was really absolutely stunned. Nobody had seen that side of him.
Jenkins: They gave me some specific dates for when he had to shoot the ["Untitled (How Does It Feel)" video]. We were in the office talking about the video, and I was like, "Hey man, shit, the way he looks, you can just shoot the video of just his body." [Laughs] I was saying it jokingly, but I was telling them, "He's really coming together man. I think if you could just film his body, the shit'll be crazy and people will go crazy."
Leeds: The important thing was that he had gone from a guy behind the piano, into a phenomenal performer. But for all the chicks who saw the video, he'd gone from a chubby little guy behind the piano into this humungous sex symbol, which in the long run, almost worked against us. It certainly attracted an audience that might not otherwise have been there. There's no question. And if you cared at the box office, that was a good thing, but if you were on the stage, it wasn't necessarily a good thing because it was almost like he was reluctant.
Redman: His first album, he wasn't a sex symbol. He was a cool-ass nigga with cornrows in his hair.
Cooper: He was overly sexualized in that video, and as beautiful as it is, it takes away from the genius of who he is as a musician for a lot of folks.
Leeds: It really created this Frankenstein that got in the way of the music. We noticed it on the very first gig. The tour began at the House of Blues in LA. I don't think we were 15 minutes into the first show before girls were screaming, "Take it off, take it off, take it off!"
Tina Farris: I started the whole "take it off" thing. I started it. It was at the House Of Blues in LA. It’s like, I'm sorry, you're an R&B star, that's the experience. You are getting seduced by a singer, a crooner. That's what it is. He was out there being sexy, and I'm a young girl, and there are young girls around me and they spent money on these tickets. I can't be apologetic.
Leeds: When that started, you could just see the expression on his face, and it was almost like panic. And he came off the stage really, really disillusioned, because he's like, "Yo, the sex symbol shit is cool and we made the video, you know, I'm gratified that girls like me, but I'm not here for that. This ain't Chippendales, I'm a musician. I want people to walk away talking about my music. All that other shit should be way far secondary."
Questlove: None of us were prepared for the Circus Maximus atmosphere of the concerts. There were nights where we'd take an "86 count"—in other words, we counted the number of times someone got ejected. Sometimes those numbers were in the hundreds. Women were constantly climbing the stage to tackle him and fighting in the audience for better seats. Celebrities too. I won't name any names, but one of my favorite R&B singers threatened to throw another female off the balcony at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. Although on the surface that could seem flattering, that experience ate his soul. He felt people were missing the bigger picture.
Farris: I didn't notice [D'Angelo's frustrations]. I heard them talking about it, but I thought that would pass.
Jenkins: What I always tell him is, "I think I failed you as a trainer, because while I got you in shape, I didn't teach you how to integrate it into your lifestyle." Him rebelling and just not caring about his body for a while, I think [D'Angelo being looked at as a sex symbol] became the catalyst for all that stuff. If you could imagine, you're an introverted guy playing the piano, and the transformation took less than 90 days, so within two or three months people are telling you to take off your clothes, it's quite a shock. I don't think he was ready for it.
At the New York City stop of the Voodoo Tour, D'Angelo and his backing band took over New York’s Radio City Music Hall for a show that helped him transition from a rising talent with limitless potential to a full-fledged superstar. Robert Christgau wrote about the show for The Village Voice, and brazenly dubbed D'Angelo "R&B Jesus.”
Christgau: I was knocked out almost from the beginning. What happens at a great show is… there's this chemical shit that goes on. Pheromones. I believe in pheromones. I believe in vibes. I'm not a mystic, but I think those things happen, and I'm sure it was happening at that show.
Redman: I was pretty brown sugar'd that night, and the only thing I could remember was a lot of excitement. The whole night was just grand.
Cooper: It was amazing, because he was really living out his dreams. For the ending of the show, he had all the musicians onstage, and then one by one, they left, and he was just there sitting at the piano and playing. I was sobbing hysterically, because everything that he said that he wanted in a show and in his life and in his career happened at that moment.
Liles: To see him perform Voodoo, to see him put a band together that consisted of some of the greatest players in the world, it was just a special moment in our culture.
Christgau: In any tour, there are good nights, maybe a few bad nights, and then every once in a while you just get lucky, and somebody is on it and you're there and you're remember it for the rest of your life, which I do. My daughter, who's been to a lot of shows with me, has seen the Rolling Stones with me and saw the B-52s when she was four, she says that's the best show she's ever seen in her life. Remembers it to this day.
Leeds: [Christgau's review] meant that we were getting through despite the girls that were there just for the Chippendales aspect of it. It told us that the performance level that he was giving and the band was giving wasn't compromised by the sex symbol stuff, to the point that somebody like Christgau wasn't distracted by it. The only thing it's affecting is your mindset.
A DARK, QUIET DECADE
In the wake of the Voodoo Tour, D'Angelo largely disappeared from the public eye, hunkering down in the studio to begin work on his third solo album. With his reluctant identity as a sex symbol engulfing him, he battled with his own self-image and soon fell into a pit of self-destruction. In 2002, D'Angelo was booked for resisting arrest after officers tried to serve him a warrant for misdemeanor charges of aggravated driving. Three years later, with no definitive updates for a forthcoming album, D was pulled over and arrested on charges of drunk driving, marijuana possession, and possession of a controlled substance (cocaine). Eight months later, he was seriously injured in a car accident that found his Hummer veering off a highway and into a fence, before flipping over. D was airlifted to a nearby hospital, and soon after entered three different rehabilitation programs. Five years later, still with no signs of an album or intent to release one, D'Angelo was arrested in Manhattan's West Village neighborhood for soliciting oral sex from an undercover policewoman.
Foster: I think there was a few years where, maybe, not to talk out of turn, but I think maybe people around him weren't supporting him the way they should have been.
Leeds: At the end of the Voodoo Tour, D honestly was talking only about trying to get back in the studio and record new music. Because he was really over it. It was like, "been there, done that."
Foster: I would get a phone call, sometimes directly from D'Angelo, with him saying, "Lee, I gotta get back in, man. And it's gotta be Electric Lady. It's gotta happen there." There was a lot of nights where he would just say, "Clear the floor, I need to be down here by myself." You just felt like he was down here, carving at the ice.
Liles: It's always hard for artists to find themselves. It's always hard to put [your life] in a place where your self is first, when you've always put your music or your fans first. The rediscovering of yourself takes time, especially when you're not only rediscovering yourself, but you also have the pressure of what people's expectations are.
Foster: D'Angelo, to most of us, is a bit of a mystery. Obviously a savant, brilliant, all the great things you could say about an amazing artist like him. And a lot of times, historically, people like that get in their own way.
Jenkins: We've been in touch the whole time. I call him from time to time to make sure he's OK, and I tell him, "When you're ready, let's get back on it. We got the world to conquer." I just tried to make sure I was there for him without putting too much pressure.
Gary Harris: He contacted me in 2005 about the possibility of managing him and helping him go into a stage of rehab… He was in trouble. I knew him. I loved his music, I loved him, I knew his family. There didn't appear to be anyone else at the time who was interested in helping him. I never stopped believing in his ability and if he was sincerely going to make an effort to get back on track, that would be something I could easily lend support to.
Jenkins: [It's been hard] as a fan. Hard as a friend. It's hard on a million levels.
Farris: Oh yeah [I had frustrations], like, Come on dude. If you're going to be Marvin Gaye, I need to hear the work. I want to hear the work. I miss your work.
A TENTATIVE COMEBACK
"I Found My Smile Again," D'Angelo's last official solo track, released in 2008.
In 2011, D'Angelo quietly reemerged from his self-imposed sabbatical with the announcement of an 11-date European tour that sold out within one day. The following year, he toured alongside Mary J. Blige on her Liberation Tour, and played major music festivals like Bonnaroo and Made In America.
Leeds: I got a call from D and he said, "I finally think I'm ready to do some gigs… I wanna do something that's a little bit under the radar, so I can break in new band members, try out some of the new music and get accustomed to playing guitar onstage," which was really a confidence issue. We were determined to keep it in small venues and keep it intimate, but in order to make it pay off financially, we had to take a couple festival gigs.
Jenkins: We almost had him when Amy [Wallace, from GQ] was interviewing him. He did the GQ shoot, and you saw in those pictures he was almost back. Maybe 40 pounds back to the video. Our goal is always to get back to where we started.
Farris: Waiting for somebody to come back out for 12 years, you have your own excitement. While he was on that sabbatical, we got to imagine what it was going to be like: "What's going to happen? Look at all these new guys that came in while he was gone. When D comes back, he's going to blow them out of the water."
Cooper: He's made records that really have impacted people's lives, and when you make full albums like that, people just don't forget you. There are very few artists these days who do that, and he's one of them. He's really about the art.
Leeds: He's playing for himself before he's playing for the audience. That doesn't mean he doesn't care about the audience—he cares greatly—but if he's not enjoying himself and expressing himself musically the way he wants to, then he's not gonna play. You gotta understand that this is somebody that could've been fabulously wealthy by now, had he just gone by the formula, which said: do another album in a year and a half and tour stadiums and do another sexy video, keep the weight off and play the game. And for whatever reason, he was like, "Yeah, OK, that's nice, but that ain't what I'm in to. I'm not in a hurry to be that. I just want to play the music that excites me to play and when it's time to tour, I'll tour. I'm not gonna do it because of some formula or what the industry says is appropriate."
The Elusive Third Album
Around the time of D'Angelo’s reemergence in 2011, frequent collaborator and producer Questlove told Pitchfork that the singer’s third album—at the time tentatively titled James River—was at last "97% done." Quest would go on to say the album was "99% done" in 2013. In early 2014, Kevin Liles, a music industry veteran and one of the most recent members of D'Angelo's management team, told Billboard "there'll be an album this year."
Foster: A lot of basic stuff had been done pretty quickly, so by 2003 or 2004, and then it's just been a lot of tweaking and exploring for all these years.
Cooper: The only thing that prevents him from putting out the record is him. I wish he'd stop tweaking it.
Leeds: There's almost no logical way to explain what's happened. He's probably written and recorded enough tracks for five albums. And the only answer I can give you that's the least bit honest is simply to say, he hasn't yet finished the album he wants it to be. Of course, the elephant in the room is that the longer it goes, the more pressure there is for that album to be the masterpiece that people are waiting for.
Liles: The rumor mill is so crazy. There's probably a good 40 different records that've been recorded. In the last two years, we're probably down to like 16 of those records. What we're going to have is a body of work that culminates the last ten years of D'Angelo… Expectations come in many different ways from many different people. I think D'Angelo wants to give his perspective. I don't think he plays for expectations, he plays for emotion, and that's really what you'll hear from this album.
Jenkins: I've heard a little bit of the record. What I've heard of it is great. He's evolved, but he's left enough that there's things people can resonate to from the past two records.
Redman: I know D as a professional, and I know he's gonna go in with his album. I'll call that motherfucker and tell him directly, "Yo, D'Angelo, I'm with anything you need on this album, you need a verse, you need a hook, you need an ad-lib"—I know his shit gonna be the bomb.
Liles: I can truly say that as an individual, his feet are on solid ground. As a spiritual person, he's found the God in him. And as a musician, his fingers and vocals are producing sounds and arrangements that you don't hear anywhere on the internet or radio today.
Leeds: It's definitely the kind of record that once you hear it, you're gonna say, "That's D'Angelo because it couldn't be anybody else."
Christgau: I will believe that [D'Angelo's third album] is a good record when it's in my hands and I hear it. But I am skeptical. I don't believe he has the profile of a genius. I think he has the profile of an unreliable artist. I can tell you what I'm certain is going to happen—is nobody is going to know what to make of the record when they write about it. There will be just reams of bullshit written about it. I am certain of it. The long-awaited follow-up album never gets a smart review. You just need time to absorb it.
Redman: People are gonna say he's back first because of the respect, just because he's a great artist: "Yo, D'Angelo's back." Then when they listen to it, this is the tone: "Yo, D'Angelo's back.” And then, if his body's in shape? You'll hear, "Yo, D'Angelo's back! That motherfucker!" That's what he wants. That's what the fuck he wants.
Harris: D'Angelo the musician is exceptional. D'Angelo the man does not allow the musician to share his craft and his art with the world on a frequent basis.
Leeds: Everybody's different, and everybody has different motivations for making records. And for whatever reason, financial pressure and pressure to get on a stage and play new music wasn't substantial enough to get D to sign off on a finished record. That’s the pure artist in him that's so difficult for anybody to really, really understand because it goes against the grain of everything that this mercenary business has turned in to.
DJ Premier: You gotta understand, when you put your music out there into the world, you’re not drawing energy in, you're putting your energy out to the world. And when that happens, it's an emotional attachment that you can't really explain unless you created that music and that energy. Some people are just like, "Ah, let me put my record out." But then you have people like [D], who gotta cross every T and dot every I. And if it takes ten years, then it takes ten years.
Leeds: The irony is that after 14 years, given what this record sounds like, this probably is the right time for it. If he had the same record eight years ago that he had now? He woulda confused the fuck out of everybody. Maybe everything just happens the way it's supposed to.
Farris: No matter how long I have to wait or how frustrated I get with him, all he has to do is open his mouth and sing, and I'm back in love.
Questlove: In my opinion, the record is still 99.44 percent done. What is missing is one word, and that word is D'Angelo. As far as I'm concerned, no more harmonies are needed. No more verses need to be rewritten. This happens with a lot of our greats. The beauty of isolation—of being your own creator—is not being influenced by what the world has offered. The downside of isolation is that you get inside of your own head and you often believe in your self-doubt and your inability. I've heard this record. I've helped create this record. It is leaps and bounds above Voodoo. It has to be. It's 14 years in the making and it still sounds like it came out tomorrow. It is hard to be that damn timeless. So, that's all I can say. It's finished. It's brilliant. D'Angelo just doesn't know it yet. And I'm not sure it's my place to make him realize that it is ready.
Dan Buyanovsky is a writer living in New York. Follow Dan Buyanovsky on Twitter.
Anna Khachiyan is an illustrator in New York. Follow Anna Khachiyan on Twitter.