D'Angelo in 1995
Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images
I Met Her in Philly: D'Angelo's 'Brown Sugar' Turns 25
It's hard to believe there was a time when R&B wasn't exactly described as "loose," which is a very subjective term. But if you can imagine, like most '80s music, R&B had become rather "tight," and became nearly claustrophobically so as New Jack Swing was introduced, with the likes of Janet Jackson and Bobby Brown riding steely new rhythms, vocalizing on beat, making entire tics out of their voices' response to the rhythm. Michael Jackson made entire songs, entire languages out of those tics. This stuff wasn't grooveless in the slightest. But it was highly choreographed, syncopated, squeezed into form-fitting outfits for mechanistic dance routines and informed by hip-hop beats, house, electro-via-Kraftwerk, all kinds of "hard" structures that forced traditional singers to constrict and contort their presences to fit into the spaces between all this busy, futuristic new audio innovation. So if you're wondering where neo-soul came from, that’s your ground zero.
Of course, there was quiet storm too, but unlike the 2010s, which found New Age and other soft, conservative genres being reevaluated as something extraordinary, the respected likes of Luther Vandross et al. were not seen as revolutionary like Public Enemy or Prince in the 1980s. What Michael "D'Angelo" Archer did a quarter-century ago was simple enough—like Marvin Gaye and so many '70s heroes before him, he imbued easy listening with urgency. Not that subtlety was about to overpower the steamrolling megapopularity of grunge or gangsta rap in 1995. But D'Angelo’s debut album Brown Sugar was vital and newsworthy enough that it arguably birthed the whole damn neo-soul movement, a year before Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, two years before Erykah Badu’s Baduizm, five before Jill Scott's Who Is Jill Scott?, and you can hear more of it today in Noname and Solange and Keiyaa and countless other contemporaries more than most music turning 25 this year.
That's the backstory, really. The legendary follow-up Voodoo gets all the attention, and rightfully so, but Brown Sugar gets somewhat overshadowed by default, for not having an epic wait like its five-year follow-up or 2016's Black Messiah, the critics' poll-annihilating mirage which materialized 14 years after that. But besides nabbing D'Angelo four GRAMMY noms at the time and almost singlehandedly opening the doors for a genre, it’s just a flawless album.
Which is not be taken for granted in any era, but especially not the '90s, a great decade for R&B singles, and not-exactly-canonized efforts from its heaviest hitters: Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, maybe TLC. Only Mary J. Blige and Prince were routinely making strong top-to-bottom albums at the time that could be slotted as soul. But they had so much hip-hop and other things in the mix, whereas D’Angelo was something of a purist. Anything new about Brown Sugar was old. Well, except for "Cruisin'," which to this day could very well still be his finest moment.
Ever heard of grooves? Not exactly a new idea. But when we talk about "loose," we talk about weed freeing oxygen to the brain, intimacy-inspired serotonin, an extreme level of comfort from a debut artist in the astoundingly calming, funky properties of his not-really-songs, and the deeply layered vocal shapes he laid over them without any particular dissonance or chaos. The Geto Boys-worthy drum loop of a vamp like "Jonz in My Bonz" was all that really tethered it to the Earth, the rest sounded like three or four Ds improvising at once, a crooner with more than one head, which in this genre has been a reality in more than a few instances. Brown Sugar is still easy listening, not that any D'Angelo is even close to difficult. But like Fela Kuti, it's simultaneously sprawling and simple-sounding; except for the intricately jazzy "Smooth" and its attendant piano, you don’t come away from these songs being convinced that they existed before the recording session.
The hooks are just mantras: "I want some of your brown sugar," "Why are you sleeping with my woman," "Look at you, you’re so smooth." They get stuck in your head without trying too hard, and they don’t sound forethought. D'Angelo is an expert arranger, player and definitely singer. But as a songwriter, you really just hear his talent molding and drawing these ideas out before your ears. And yet the avoidance of waste is shocking: just ten songs, no skits, most hovering around the extraordinary heights of the six-and-half-minute "Cruisin'" and the bluesy, bewildered cheating reveal "Shit, Damn, Motherf**ker." Voodoo is widely acknowledged as the best R&B album of the 2000s, but there’s no reason not to award the same consideration to its naturalistic, unhurried predecessor for its respective decade. He’s one of those icons like Kurt Cobain who makes it sound so easy when dozens of not-quites prove it certainly isn't. But listening rarely gets easier than Brown Sugar.