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Black Messiah


Since I find a way to mention him in nearly every blog post I write, I feel it necessary for me to comment on certain recent developments.

Fans have been waiting very near to 15 years for a follow up to D’Angelo’s landmark album, Voodoo. The follow up has been promised by a myriad of people for about three years, with no real concrete evidence that it was as done as was anecdotally communicated.

Friday night, a trailer on YouTube started hitting pop culture websites. This trailer seemed to herald the official return of D’Angelo with his third album, entitled Black Messiah. Even crazier, there was a picture that immediately started hitting the rounds from Twitter, showing what looks like a very real and official jewel case of the album, with a caption stating December 16th as the release date.

In theory, this is the best music news I could possibly hear. This is the follow up to my #1 favorite album. It’s new music from D’Angelo. But in reality I’m a little nervous.

Here’s why, at the risk of sounding ridiculous for being nervous to listen to an album of music. I’ve lived with Voodoo for 10 years, and my love for its genius has been a really slow burn. There are seasons I’d go to it and listen to nothing else and others where I wouldn’t pick it up for months or even years on end. I don’t remember listening to it at all during my first go-round at University of Iowa, and that was three semesters worth before transferring to Northern Iowa, where I remember listening to it on and off for another six semesters, including one in Spain where I listened to it constantly (Voodoo and Thriller were my albums on heavy rotation).

When I think about follow up albums, I usually expect there to be some sort of thread or connective tissue between it and its predecessor. From what I know of this album, from what I’ve heard about it from the people who have been involved in its creation, that thread might not exist between Black Messiah and Voodoo. And that kind of freaks me out.

What if I listen to this and I think its garbage? There is so much speculation and hype built into this new record and I’ve been waiting for it intently for about four years now. I’m nervous to think that that many years of anticipation would be towards something that I don’t or can’t connect to at all.

And finally, I’m nervous for the first time I listen to it. Granted, this is a feeling I feel often when I think about the “first time” of something media related. I was nervous to watch The Dark Knight for the first time, and to finish The Sopranos. The first time with a new album I’ve been waiting for is always a little nerve-wracking, but tenfold in this case. I distinctly remember the first time listening to albums that have meant a lot to me. I remember exactly where and how I listened to John Mayer’s Continuum, Al Green’s Lay It Down and Kanye West’s Graduation.

And the thing that’s scary about them is once you’re through, you don’t get that feeling back. You don’t get a second first time. This is obviously true with lots of things in life, but that doesn’t diminish my first time jitters. As I go into listening to Black Messiah for the first time, I can only hope to remember that I had to let Voodoo simmer for about half a decade before really realizing what it was. Music is one of those beautiful things that God created to get better with age, like wine or sex. Here’s to another 10 years of digesting this album, and another 15 of waiting for the follow up.

If you’re into teasers/spoilers/previews, here’s all the stuff that’s out.

Red Bull Music Academy dropped the first single last night: “Sugah Daddy”:


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Shuffle Lessons, Vol. 10

You can find the previous Shuffle Lessons posts here.

1. “Wait Until Tomorrow” – John Mayer Trio, Try!

JM3 was the product of JM’s musically-rebellious career phase. Radio made him a pop star with “Wonderland” and against his wishes, further boxed him in with the release of “Daughters.” In response, he grew his hair out and started this power trio with Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan. As a JM fan since around 2002, this was an insanely exciting part of his career where I learned a great deal about his musical influences. For example, I knew he was a Hendrix fan before this, but his covers of Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow” and “Bold As Love” were concert staples during the JM3 tour and really reinforced how nuanced his Hendrix fandom was. This particular song was a fantastic choice for a cover, and it fit perfectly into his goal of breaking boundaries and finding out how far he could take his new-found musical freedom. “Wait Until Tomorrow” was a song where Hendrix highlighted his rhythm guitar skills, and that’s exactly why JM chose it. In this cover, JM has the chance to stretch some rhythm playing muscles during the extremely complex verses (while he’s singing to boot) and then blast through an intense solo at the end. If you listen to his guitar during the verses, it is all over the place. It’s not just some simple I-V chords underneath the words. His hands are making the most of that guitar neck, and he’s keeping the guitar singing it’s own melody alongside his voice. This cover is a fantastic example of how good the JM3 was for JM’s career. With the JM3, JM had nobody to hide behind. It’s like taking your guitar amp’s reverb knob down to zero; you’re left with just your naked guitar tone and you hear every single mistake you make and it helps you improve. Trial by fire. Playing with the JM3, he had nothing to stand behind other than his own guitar chops. You can hear it in this song completely. The solo itself is a masterful mix of a blistering lead guitar solo while still holding to the rhythm section of the melody, keeping the song moving and keeping the listener conscious to where they’re at in the song.

2. “Princess Of China” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

I’d argue this as my favorite song off of Mylo Xyloto. Coldplay swung for the musically-experimental fences and parked one in the “hits” section. When I first read Rihanna was featured on the album, I was extremely dubious, but I shouldn’t have been. I’m not sure why this song works so well for me, but it’s got this futuristic blend of musical styles that’s rooted in an incredibly gorgeous soundscape. In my review of this album, I remember describing it as having a decidedly “steampunk” sound, or something to that effect, and I think this song was the one that really conjured that image in my head. There’s feedback, there’s tinny sound patches, all on top of this stainless steel, factory-like beat. I see robot workers sweating grease and oil as I listen to this. I doubt it’s what Coldplay was shooting for (lyrically, this seems to be a relationship song), but whatever this song is, it’s something that has real beauty behind its mechanics. The coda (“cause you really hurt me…”) is classic Coldplay, finding a chord progression designed to crush human emotions.

3. “Up In Flames” – Coldplay, Mylo Xyloto

Two songs off the same album? A Shuffle Lessons first. Unfortunately, most of what I wrote about the tune “Us Against The World” is perfectly applicable to this song. One of the weaknesses of Mylo Xyloto as an album is that there were a few songs like this that seemed like fraternal song twins, but bordering dangerously close to identical. One big difference between these two songs is this one is slow, methodical and sparse in its production, with a lot less going on than “Us Against The World.” When Coldplay keep their songs simple, with no instrument overload, they manage to create this musical ecosystem unlike any other artist, and this song is just a really nice example of that. This song is pretty heavily rooted in simple piano chords and the metronome-like drum beat. Lots of reverb, but without lots of instruments to fill up that reverb space, it creates this gorgeous transitory white space. All instruments drop out just before the 2:00 mark and the listener is left with literally just musical ephemera. It’s breathtaking. And as if it wasn’t enough, the last chorus finally hits this emotional release with the addition of a beautiful guitar riff. It’s an extremely simple guitar tone, very straightforward but adding so much depth to the overall mix of sounds. These sorts of musical climaxes are why I will never stop listening to Coldplay. At least their old stuff.

4. “Spanish Joint” – D’Angelo, Spanish Joint

The story of this song is smooth groove, the depth of which I know I will never fully understand. There’s too much going on here, too many influences and genres and vocal layers and instrumental layers that most likely, there are probably only like three people that truly understand how much this song represents and encapsulates. I don’t know enough about Afrobeat musical culture to get from where this song is really born. What I do know is that given a focused listen, you can find new elements every time. For some reason, the percussion is standing out to me more than normal. Actually, more than ever, because I didn’t really ever notice it before. Aside from the beautiful salsa beat laid down by Questlove, there are some intense congas going on behind it. Technically, this song is a stand out on Voodoo, I just wish I could explain why. I do know that guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter is laying down the guitar parts on this one, both rhythm and bass simultaneously on a custom eight-string guitar/bass combo instrument. Insane. Even in the intro, the way Hunter pulls off such a clear sound from both bass and guitar parts at the same time is miraculous. The quality of the recording is due in large part to Russell Elevado, the sound engineer during the Voodoo sessions. For Hunter’s weird guitar/bass combo, Elevado tied the separate pickups for those two parts into distinct outputs so while there is a slight blend, you can still hear the parts so uniquely in the recording. Phenomenal work. And like other songs off of Voodoo, you can hear like 32 vocal layers on this one. This entire record feels so vibrant and real, like it’s a first take recording. There isn’t a moment on all of Voodoo where I feel differently; a perfect example of that feeling is at 4:42 on this tune, when you can hear D’Angelo tell the band they’re going back to the chorus during the last instrumental breakdown. It feels organic, like we’re listening in not on a final product but rather something being created in real time. Makes for a fascinatingly groovy listen.

5. “Life In Technicolor ii” – Coldplay, Prospekt’s March

Seriously, three Coldplay songs out of five randomly chosen? My iPod must love them. This song alone is almost worth the purchase price of this culled-from-Viva La Vida-sessions EP. It’s basically just the intro from Viva La Vida but morphed into an actual song with lyrics and a chorus. And while I think I like the instrumental better as it fits so well with the theme and feeling of Viva La Vida, this is a very rousing number that makes your heart feel big. Listening to this extended song after devouring Viva La Vida for the five months in between these releases was interesting because it made me wonder why they chose the shorter instrumental to intro Viva La Vida and didn’t just turn it into the full-blown song that’s on this EP. I think lyrically they had used the “Now my feet / won’t touch / the ground” concept more than once, especially as it’s the title of another song off of this EP. I’m glad they chose the slightly more restrained version for the full album, but this tune is a pretty cool look into their song-selection process.

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Old/New Albums: Teddy Pendergrass’ Self-Titled

teddyI wish I liked this album more than I do.

Teddy Pendergrass was released in 1977, six months before the soundtrack to Saturday Night Live came out and disco’s global domination was complete. I’d classify this album as R&B/Soul, but you can hear some major disco elements seeping in around the edges, something that would color Pendergrass’ follow-up albums even more so.

After giving this album some time to simmer, I just didn’t find myself grabbed by the hooks. There are some alright hooks sprinkled throughout, but they all seem pretty heavily flavored by the disco sound, lots of grand, orchestral string arrangements, quickly syncopated drum rhythms, the Nile Rodgers-esque guitar strum. It all kind of blends together into a mash for me.

And there are a few stand out problems that kind of turned me off. First, you run into quite a few writing cliches throughout. The second line of the entire album is “anywhere you go, there you are.” Come on, Teddy. This isn’t the most groundbreaking album in terms of writing quality.

Also, this album suffers from having one vaguely religious song in the midst of a bunch of love songs. Thematically, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s not that God songs and love songs can’t coexist on the same album, but it needs to be done with a slightly lighter touch than this album shows.

Even the tune “And If I Had” was a bust for me. I’ve known for awhile that D’Angelo sampled this tune for Voodoo‘s second track, “Devil’s Pie,” and I had my private eye hat on when I first listened to Teddy’s tune, ready to find the sample. After two weeks of listening to this, I couldn’t for the life of me hear it. I figured it was either a very small sample or something that was radically chopped/screwed to sound totally different (if you listen to “Devil’s Pie,” it doesn’t sound at all like the latter). Big props to Adam for finding it for me, turns out it’s the first half second of the song. Just the bass line before any other instruments come in, that was slightly sped up to provide the bass line for “Devil’s Pie.”

Alright, so the sample has been identified, and it’s admittedly awesome to have a direct connection to something D’Angelo used as inspiration and musical foundation for his own album. But unlike Ohio Players’ “Players Balling (Players Doin’ Their Own Thing)” or Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “Get On The Mic,” the sample used in “And If I Had” is just so minuscule. I don’t listen to this song and feel any direct connection to Voodoo because it’s such a micro sample. It was a bit of a let down after hearing something as drastic as Kool & The Gang’s “Sea Of Tranquility” earlier in this series.

My final conclusion: there just wasn’t anything that really stood out to me. It didn’t even particularly grow on me with continued listens.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. And If I Had
  2. Easy, Easy, Got To Take It Easy
  3. The More I Get, The More I Want

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Old/New Albums: The RH Factor’s “Hard Groove”

hardgrooveEverybody needs a little more funk in their life. I recommend you get it with this album. The RH Factor is one of many bands led by Roy Hargrove, a trumpet/flugelhorn player who has played with legends of old and new generations for nearly 30 years. Many of his other group configurations are geared more heavily towards straightforward quartet/quintet jazz, but The RH Factor definitely has its own distinct flavor.

This album has got funk and soul music’s fingerprints all over it. With a shot of hip hop thrown in for good measure, all coalescing into this funky bed for Hargrove’s jazzy grooves to rest upon. There isn’t anything too upbeat here, it’s all pretty relaxed and deep in the pocket.

And absolutely gorgeous. The grooves Hargrove and his players find are so smooth and dirty at the same time. They are all very open, allowing all musicians involved to really stretch out. And while I can’t get enough of this, this aspect is what might turn some listeners off to repeated listens. There could be sections that could’ve been slightly tightened up, or at least shrunk down a bit.

But paring down always comes at a risk. The album opener is a great example of this. “Hardgroove” starts out so low and is just built upon, each musician adding their own voice as the song progresses. For a song that starts out with the simplest guitar riff, it really gets crazy by the 4th minute. Horns on top of horns, bass, guitar and drums, all creating this elaborately controlled cacophony.

Again, I freak out about how good this is. But it’s the fusion-ey open spaces that aren’t necessarily the most accessible to the casual listener. I’m thinking about “Out Of Town” and “Pastor ‘T.'”

But then many casual listeners are not going to be in love with a straightforward jazz quintet either. This album has great give and take between creating funky, soulful grooves that any jazz musician would love soloing over. It hits the bullseye on what a good fusion blend can sound like.

I am predisposed to love this album though, based on the nature of its conception. Roy Hargrove was one of the musicians involved in creating D’Angelo’s Voodoo record, during the height of the Soulquarian musical movement. Everybody was playing on everybody else’s record, musicians were coming and going between sessions, musicians were trading songs (most notably, D’Angelo and Common traded “Chicken Grease” for “Geto Heaven Part Two”), and this atmosphere of unity, creativity and musical experimentation was being fostered. Hard Groove is a reflection of that musical spirit. Many of the Soulquarians were involved in this album’s recording, and you can feel their vibe all the way through the slightly more jazz-inclined flavor of this record.

This feeling of a funky offshoot of the Soulquarian sessions is most evident in one of my favorite tracks, “I’ll Stay” featuring D’Angelo. This is a cover of a Funkadelic tune from 1974, and for this reason it possesses much of the spirit of Voodoo and by extension, the Soulquarians.

During the recording of Voodoo, D’Angelo and the Soulquarians would spend hours jamming through entire albums of their musical heroes, the Yodas of their musical upbringing. Sly & The Family Stone, Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire, Prince, and so on. It was in these loose and organic jam sessions that song ideas would sprout and blossom into what you hear on Voodoo.

“I’ll Stay” is a perfect example of what that; what happens what genius musicians get together and make music. It is a slow burn song, stretching past 7 minutes. Starts slow and stays slow, but the song finds its groove early, and spends the rest of its time really sinking into this gritty stew of funk and blues and soul. And it’s absolutely amazing. It’s cold-blooded and dirty, like a swampy love letter to a woman who’s done you wrong. My face has a physical reaction to this groove. I make guitar faces even if I’m not playing along. That’s how powerful this tune is.

So I’m crazy about this whole album. This is maybe the first record of my Old/New Albums series that I’ve actively fallen in love with. If you can find it, it’s a whole lot of fun.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. “Juicy”
  2. “I’ll Stay” – Featuring D’Angelo
  3. “Liquid Streets”

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Another blog courtesy of “drinking” and “driving.”Pitchfork recently interviewed ?uestlove and as always, it is an entertaining and incredibly informative read. The guy is an absolute music genius, one of the few of our generation whose music references I take very seriously and view as must-adds to my music collection. He’s got this intense knowledge of music; today’s various music scenes as well as a deep intimacy with soul music of the ’60s and ’70s. It blows me away.

This blog is inspired by two interviews with ?uest that I read today. One is from 2003, and one is from yesterday (8/19/11). The guy is this mad scientist/chameleon/jack-of-all-trades of music. I certainly would not want to restrict him to a hip hop box because he clearly knows the world outside of it, even though his band (The Roots) is a hip hop group. He makes music references like all he does all day long is listen to music. It’s amazing. I want that job. I want the music research job, where you listen to records all day long, read liner notes all day long, figure out who played drums on what record while producing another record, how music connects, how musicians align, continually grow the big picture view of this giant web of music of the last 100 years. It’s obvious by how he talks that ?uestlove has this kind of over-arching, encyclopedic knowledge of music.

But what I love the absolute most about ?uestlove is when he talks about D’Angelo. ?uestlove was integral in the creation and production of D’s landmark album Voodoo and all I’ve ever wanted is for a musician to put out something as good as Voodoo in the last ten years. I think some have come close, possibly even matched it, but so, so few. This album is just out of control good. I am talking a kind of good that percolates. Good that sneaks up on you. Good that shows up after the fifteenth listen and gets better every single time. I still hear stuff on this album that I haven’t caught before. I’ve never heard anything as layered as this.

But this isn’t the time to actually write about Voodoo in a review sort of way.* What I want to highlight here is how important ?uestlove is to the current music scene. The first interview is eight years old now. ?uestlove and the interviewer chat about the then-current state of black music and how sociopolitical aspects of the day play into black music, but the good stuff comes when they start to chat about working with D’Angelo during the recording of Voodoo. It’s such a cool concept; Voodoo was made on the principle that music is art and should be made with the utmost respect to those pioneers who have come before and the unknown visionaries that are to come and always with respect to the art itself. All of these incredibly musical people came together and made this mind-blowing album. It wasn’t about money or gaining fans, it was about releasing a product, this work of art that could change how someone listened to music. “If creating music were a political party, then we were sort of being socialists.” Why can’t more artists think this way?

What I love is how he reinforces this ideal. He mentions going into the studio to record with John Mayer around the time of the interview (?uestlove played drums on “Clarity” off of the Heavier Things album in 2003). And ?uest actually says it was the most fun he’d had playing since recording Voodoo. He said he went in to record the one tune and they ended up jamming out like six new songs. That’s incredible. It makes me so excited to know that these two musical brains have collaborated in the past and they are both still making music today, albeit not together. It is a giant relief to me, and it’s one of those moments I have so infrequently nowadays when I think “Oh yeah, John Mayer used to be make amazing music and still has the potential to put out a completely life-altering record.” Here’s to hoping.

Also equally as interesting in this interview is how he profiles the breakdown of D’Angelo. How releasing “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” as a single off of Voodoo contributed to a very sexualized public persona that D’Angelo found hard to overcome. How the tour to support Voodoo quickly unwound because of all of this public hype. It’s a sad story, but one that is pretty common in genius artistic circles, as ?uestlove puts it, “…they sabotage their shit.”

Fast forward to August ’11. In this interview with Pitchfork, ?uestlove speaks a lot more about The Roots and where they are, what it’s like to be a house band of a late night host, etc. He does delve into the Soulquarian era a bit at the end, but overall this whole interview shows less his involvement with D’Angelo and more his ground-level view of rap over the last 20 years and how it has changed. This guy has been an integral part of hip-hop for over two decades now, and he has been in various circles as that time has gone by. This is a really interesting read for anyone who likes music, and especially anybody who likes hip hop.

I’m happy we still have ?uestlove around. I desperately hope he continues to coax D’Angelo out of semi-retirement, but at the very least, I hope he keeps collaborating. That is where I think he comes up with the greatest stuff. He has this uncanny ability to pull real music out of artists; he is our generation’s Quincy Jones and D’Angelo is his Michael Jackson. I just hope they eventually reconnect and make their Bad.


*Not sure I ever will, only because it’s hard to write about something that good. All it seriously would be is me repeating over and over how awesome the whole freakin’ album is. Each track, “Wow this one is amazing.” Doesn’t make for the best read. What I should do is accumulate every time I’ve mentioned it in passing in another post and you’d have basically my every thought about the insanity and genius that is that album.

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