Review Summary: Graceful and firm, Brown Sugar is a stellar introduction to a musician who sits in the pantheon of great musicians after only two albums of material.
Somehow, 90s nostalgia hasn’t died off. Sometime around the late 00s we started clumsily pointing at totems from the 90s and gawking (“You might be a 90s kid if…”) but recently it’s intensified and narrowed. No longer are we content at such pandering, artists are now trying to capture a feeling relegated to that decade. Just recently we had a cultural milling around a TLC biopic, quintessential 90s brands like Timberlands and Dada are suddenly back in fashion, and music videos by major artists are incorporating vintage luxury vehicles shot with cameras that record to VHS tapes.
Simply put, the 90s were the last full decade our culture was relatively untouched by the Internet. When we reach back there, we’re reaching for a time when we had to call each other on house phones to get together. We see that decade as the last bastion of true human connection, before we all lived through touch screens.
I’m not a nostalgic person. I’m aware enough to know that this is a lie and that things are always better after they happen but excuse me for a second because D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar
has me feeling a certain way.
The album makes me want to lower the top on a bubble Lexus as my pager softy vibrates in my pocket. I want to cruise through pre-9/11 New York City with a crisp new cassette tape of Brown Sugar
whirring in the stereo. I want it to be a brisk night so I’ve got the seat heater on. I want it to be pre-recession America.
I don't really pine for some fantasy land in another time this way but Brown Sugar
presents such an attractive portrait of the dead center of that enigmatic decade. It’s pitched right in between naturalism and technological advancement. New Jack Swing clatter coexists with quiet storm guitar lines and upright bass. Above it all floats D’Angleo. Brandishing that
voice on Brown Sugar
. One that can be sensuous and threatening at the same time, he harmonizes with himself, layering his immaculate vocal runs until they swim together indistinguishably. He taps into a groove and wields it like he was born onto a piano throne. Which he was. By the age of 3 D’Angelo, born Michael Eugene Archer, was showing a preternatural talent for the piano. His brother Luke recalls hearing him playing fully fleshed out songs on the family piano before he had taken a single lesson.
But it isn’t his amazing singing voice or skill with the keys that makes D’Angelo essential; it’s his restraint with those talents. He never gives himself over to showy vocal runs or indulgent displays of talent. He’s keen enough to know that the song is what matters most. That isn’t to say he doesn’t let loose vocal runs, he does but they’re always very understated, low key enough to miss if you’re not paying attention. On hit single “Lady” he uses the first half of the song to lay down all his radio ready hooks but takes the back half on a trip, turning the chorus into a persistent refrain. New harmonies and vocal runs flow naturally out of this new section of the song, the groove remains centered, his vocals run around its curves.
Because Brown Sugar
is groove based, it does one thing and does it incredibly well. It leads off with the title track and “Alright”, two songs that are so perfect I refuse to dedicate any more than this sentence to them and risk hyperbole. “Jonz in my Bonz” barely has a structure yet remains compelling. “*** Damn Mother***er” is one of the few murder ballads that actually sounds menacing. It also sounds luxurious; how he pulled that off I’ll never quite know. Brown Sugar
isn’t just a great soul record though, its also effortlessly listenable. Mom, Dad, sister, cousin, brother, estranged neighbor, dog, cat, policeman, best friend, and worst enemy. There’s something enjoyable here for everyone.
D’Angelo took 5 years to create another album, the peerless Voodoo
in 2000. We’ve been waiting ever since. It’s been a worrying wait. He’s struggled with addiction and perfectionism for over a decade but the sabbatical may be coming to an end. He’s slowly crept back to the stage, performing new songs in the process and sounding amazing doing it. But whatever he releases, no matter how good it is, it wont feel like Brown Sugar
. This isn’t a detriment to that future record, Brown Sugar
is simply dated in the best way possible. It sounds innocent. One that sounds full of the hope and discovery of the 90s, the sound of a time before everything started moving faster than human hands could grasp. It’s nu-vintage, one that has aged wonderfully. Nostalgia is toxic in heavy doses, but harmless every once in a while. Play Brown Sugar
and slip back in time.