There’s a reason Frank Ocean’s quickly ascending to that mythical Lena Dunham-coveted honor "Voice of a Generation": he puts words first. Like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, the music is good, but it’s decoration for the mind. The mind is what he is selling, the thoughts and convictions and empathies and playful storytelling. But if you’re looking for funky music, you’ll have to settle for “Nature Feels,” a groove that MGMT gave him. Last year’s Channel Orange didn’t have a lot of beats, and that Grammy performance inadvertently showed the limits of his vocal abilities, so his appeal came mostly down to what he had to say. This is fucking great; R&B is commonly associated with singles artists and an overuse of the word “baby.” By all means, tear up the status quo.
The Weeknd and Drake are into painting pictures, too. More than hooks, they’re trying to show you one-man films. Then you have Janelle Monaé, Solange Knowles, and Dawn Richard, whose ambitions have a lot more to do with the intersection of '80s art-rock and sophisti-pop. Finally, there’s Miguel, who more than any of them wants to be a hit-maker, with concise songs that—as of 2012—have a home-produced quality like stiffly-programmed DIY demos. What these artists have in common is that their egos are on parade. And none of them swing.
D’Angelo, who just played Brooklyn Bowl following a recent coronation into the Pitchfork hall of fame, is whom many are looking to as a forefather or explanation of some kind, for (white) people’s newfound interest in soul music. And he is amazing: not just the recently reissued smokehouse workout Voodoo, but every-bit-its-equal predecessor Brown Sugar are marvels of sustained groove, thoughtful arrangement and rubbery prettiness. But try as this generation will to pin responsibilities on him like a Kurt Cobain (or at least Kevin Shields)-style genius/recluse, he has very little in common with any of the above-named artists other than the bins you’ll be able to find them in.
Not only are lyrics an ancillary concern for D’Angelo, but even his singing is so understated, showing off so subtly it makes it count. This isn’t unheard-of, but he’s one of the great quiet virtuosos in all of Western pop. He’s a fitter of pieces. By contrast, the centrifugal force of Beyoncé’s voice and womanist slogans tend to crush anything in radius and wear it around her neck. She writes catch phrases, Frank writes songs, and D’Angelo barely seems to string together a full sentence. If he does, you’re too busy focusing on the ceaseless bump and roll of his excellent musicians jamming from pocket to pocket.
D’s most lyrical song (and most songful track) is 1995’s “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” which tells a story from “why are you sleeping with my woman” to “why the both of you bleeding so much.” There aren’t many other lines, yet it says all it has to. Very few artists of this pedigree let the music talk for them. Hell, the third song on Ocean’s debut is a platform to rival barackobama.com: “I believe a woman's temple/ Gives her the right to choose but baby don't abort/ I believe that marriage isn't/ Between a man and woman but between love and love.” Breathtaking words and earth-shaking music aren’t mutually exclusive in any genre, but D’Angelo is definitely re-entering a world where he is being treated as a rarity. Except for the Flaming Lips-cosigned (and then violently estranged) Erykah Badu, the neo-soul peers from when D released Voodoo, such as Jill Scott and Maxwell, have become largely removed from The Conversation (which is bizarre because Scott’s last album hit #1, and Marsha Ambrosius from Floetry fell just short). It’s not just old people falling into a niche-or-legend box as young turks claim their turf; last year’s excellent debut album from 24-year-old NYU grad Elle Varner was ignored by many of the same places that praised Frank Ocean and Miguel. (It reached the #4 on the strength of niche supporters and made a fan of Michelle Obama).
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what pushes an R&B artist to the forefront of the general interest but no one questions that D’Angelo deserves it. Hopefully the thousands of kids on a Sufjan Stevens comedown awaiting D’s 13-years-waiting third record (it really, really looks to be out this year, and mbv’s renewed all faith in the impossible) will demand similar musical virtuosity from the genre—grooves, funk, beats—moving forward, just as we expect Frank Ocean and the Weeknd to keep raising the stakes on a conceptual and lyrical front. Great lyrics, tight tunes and ambitious song structures are awesome developments. But extended jams and real-instrument-players shouldn’t have a bad name save for one lone wolf. Neo-soul has more than one artist worth your time even if they lack an easy entry point like sampling Beach House or name-dropping Coachella.
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