NEW ORLEANS — At the Essence Music Festival on Friday night, I couldn’t help but think there was something poignant about D’Angelo taking the stage for the latest in a season of comeback concerts in the same week that Frank Ocean had seized the news cycle for his game-changing personal revelation. Kindred musical spirits: one ahead of his time, the other firmly a product of his time.
More than 15 years before Ocean was hailed as a radical voice poised to remake the oft-beleaguered genre known as rhythm and blues, Michael Eugene Archer became a messianic figure, sent down to save our (neo) souls from the hackneyed bump-and-grind of R&B with his 1995 debut, Brown Sugar. So maybe it’s just me, but the moment feels right for the now-38-year-old to be reemerging.
If fans were expecting the Richmond, Virginia-born singer to bask in the nostalgia of his classic first LP, though, they were disappointed. Taking the stage without any fanfare, he dove into his cover of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love,” off his sophomore disc, Voodoo. And it was instantly clear that D’Angelo and his raucous band were less concerned with faithful renditions of the well-aged tracks than with turning the songs on their heads.
Still, at the Superdome, where swag included tote bags emblazoned with the 59-year-old mug of the night’s headliner Charlie Wilson, D’s highly instrumental approach to his set didn’t always gibe with the room. But for die-hards, who largely skewed younger, the singer was mesmerizing. (One row in front of us, Destiny’s Child alums Michelle Williams and LaToya Luckett, along with rising star Luke James, were as enthralled as we were, dancing during much of the show.)
While D’Angelo rightfully dug into material that will probably appear on James River, his first album in a dozen years, he also dusted off his hits. There was the bewitching “Devil’s Pie” and the blissfully profane “Sh–, Damn, Mother——,” which he drew out to Church Revival lengths, even leaving the stage for a few moments before returning to cap off the coda.
The chiseled, cornrow-rocking D’Angelo of the late ’90s is now a thing of a bygone era, tossed into the archives of the “neo-soul” movement that birthed him. For Friday’s show, which was presented by Coca-Cola, D tied a black bandanna around his unruly mass of locks for a look that seemed inspired by pirates and Hendrix. So we shouldn’t have been surprised that for “Untitled” (How Does It Feel), the massive single now synonymous with his break with the music industry, there were no panties thrown and no abs shown.
Instead, the all-black clad D’Angelo sat at the keys and ran through a subdued verse as the ecstatic crowd sang along. He seemed eager to get it over with, the song perhaps too much of a reminder of a time when he buckled under the weight of sex symboldom, disappearing for nearly a decade into a haze of addiction and personal demons.
It was on the anthemic “Lady,” though, that D came alive. With the concertgoers on their feet, he let himself smile, soaring on his falsetto on that infectious hook. In the mid-’90s, lyrics like this had put D’Angelo squarely ahead of his time: “Babe, I know they’ve seen us before/ Maybe at the liquor store / Or maybe at the health food stand / They don’t know that I’m your man.” Then only 21 years old, his songwriting was both conversational and reflective, a rare combo in R&B.
Now, as he shakes off the weight of his past, D’Angelo seems poised to grab his place again.