D'Angelo and the Demons of the New Minstrel Movement

Spin Magazine’s piece covering the rise and fall, and perhaps second rise of D’Angelo has been lingering in my mind for weeks. As you might expect, I was a fan of D’Angelo’s from the start.

And that’s true even though I was clowning him when he got arrested. To tell the truth, I hadn’t quite realized just how far the man had fallen. If you look at the comments on my post from three years ago, you can see that even then people were saying they just wanted the man to get well so they could hear more of his work. ?uestlove articulates the challenge here better than anyone, though: “The new minstrel movement in hip-hop doesn’t allow the audience to believe the artist is smart.”

It’s a particularly striking observation given that Spin’s look at D’Angelo mentions in passing how that tension between art and commerce has affected so many of the acts I love. The world of R&B success demands either heaven or hell — you either become a preacher and lose all of the sexiness and swagger that made you compelling in the first place. Or worse, you succumb to the demons.

While D’Angelo grew increasingly isolated, the rocky path he was traveling was, ironically enough, quite crowded with like-minded compatriots. At least three of neo-soul’s other late’90s leading lights — Maxwell, [Erykah] Badu, and [Lauryn] Hill — have spent much of the new millennium on the sidelines.

Hill’s struggles have been well documented: She followed her 1998 breakthrough, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, with an MTV Unplugged set four years later that felt like the soundtrack to a real-time nervous breakdown. She’s yet to offer a second studio album and, apart from some aborted Fugees reunions, occassional shows, and involvement with a shady guru, much of her time has apparently been devoted to her family.

Badu released her triple-platinum debut, Baduizm, in 1997 and a successful follow-up, Mama’s Gun, three years later, and then said she had writer’s block and went on what she dubbed “The Frustrated Artist Tour” in search of inspiration. She eked out a slight EP in 2003 but then was largely silent, until the well-received release of New AmErkykah (Pt. 1 4th World War) last February.

Maxwell’s journey probably parallels D’Angelo’s most closely. The Brooklyn-born singer released three platinum albums between 1996 and 2001, earning frequent comparisons to D’Angelo, then seemed to disappear entirely. A new album, Black Summers’ Night, was originally slated for spring 2004 but has been delayed repeatedly. Some close to him suggest that, like D’Angelo, he’s been wrestling with a rather ill-fitting public image as a sex god.

There’s much, much more in the story, but it’s almost impossible to overstate how much a lot of us had put our faith for the future of soul music in a small group of talented artists. A decade later, it almost seems as if no one’s even trying to carry the torch anymore.

We’ll see how it goes; I’ve got tickets to see Maxwell in concert next month, and I’m still holding out for that new D’Angelo record.

  • If you like music, you should own D’Angelo’s Voodoo.
  • Maxwell is active on MySpace.
  • ?uestlove, the heart of The Roots and the standing leader of the neo-soul movement, is a born blogger.
  • And Erykah’s “Honey” is one of the best videos of the year: