Waiting For James River

Published in Parle Magazine, 2010

Easily one of the most anticipated albums of the decade, D’Angelo’s James River is expected to be released (fingers crossed) some point this year. Nearly ten years in the making, it is the follow-up to the critically acclaimed Voodoo, released in 2000 to rave reviews by listeners and industry professionals alike. The rumors surrounding its content and structure, the reclusiveness of the artist, and a myriad of legal troubles have propelled the album to an almost mythical status. Rarely making any appearances since 2000, refusing to give interviews and issuing virtually no solo material, D’Angelo himself remains shrouded in mystery. Over the past ten years the focus has shifted from his art to his courtroom battles, yet what we have heard from him has been nothing short of phenomenal.

In 2006, he contributed to J Dilla’s The Shining, performing with Common on the track entitled “So Far to Go”. In 2008, he lent his voice to Q-Tip’s The Renaissance, a Time magazine Album of the Year, singing the chorus on “Believe”.  Seen by many as the one man to stand alone with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Al Greene, James River is anticipated by fans the world over more than the second coming of Christ. Not too surprising coming from an artist rock critic Robert Christgau has dubbed “The R & B Jesus”.

A pioneer of the neo-soul movement, he fell in with the Soulquarians in the early 90’s, a loose affiliation of artists including Q-Tip, J Dilla, Mos Def, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, and Erykah Badu. Heavily inspired by jazz and heavy bass with live instrumentation, neo-soul brought a new era of smoothness to popular music, bringing an underground appeal to the mainstream. The influence of neo soul spread throughout the industry in the mid 90’s, allowing artists like Maxwell a chance to top the charts. Many thought this trend would be short lived. Yet with the dawn of the new millennium, people wanted more.

2000 was a very productive year that saw the releases of Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and, perhaps most importantly, D’Angelo’s Voodoo. These were records that challenged convention. Each album was a standalone success, sounding nothing like the R&B and hip-hop hits of the time. Yet it was Voodoo, which achieved so much acclaim, so much praise, that skyrocketed D’angelo from a performer to the forerunner of a brand new genre. The production, spearheaded by himself and Questlove, was so immaculate, so invigorating, it was impossible to dispute D’Angelo’s title as the King of Soul. The album dared to take chances, not conforming to any ideals of what popular music should sound like.

Filled with odd instrument placement, overly muffled bass lines, and random sequence changes, it challenged listeners to abandon their understanding of contemporary music. Voodoo dismantled soul. It shattered R&B. It crushed rock and roll. It took each of these elements of music, broke them down, and built them back up again into a new animal: a hazy, psychedelic, funk fueled Frankenstein of musical genius.  The album polarized his fans. You either loved it or hated it. But image didn’t matter. It was the integrity of the artist and the daring production techniques, which have made it not just a modern day classic, but the blueprint for which all R&B artists must now aspire to. With so many accolades already behind him, what will James River have in store for us? Has too much time passed? Has D’Angelo faded from our musical consciousness? Can he really create musical genius a third time in a row? And most importantly, does he have the confidence to do it?

Earlier this year, a song believed to be from James River entitled “1000 Deaths” was leaked onto the Internet. It begins with several drum patterns all looped together, accompanied by a frantic, lone electric guitar. The musical vibrations pull you into a trance, building up the anticipation to an almost unbearable level. Soon, you can hear the faintest whisper of D’Angelo’s voice cascading down through this strange yet beautiful noise. Something like electric gospel, or acid-inspired funk.  It certainly didn’t sound like anything any of these other guys out there would be willing to try. What will the fans of Ne-Yo and Chris Brown have to say about it? Most of the people listening to their records are probably too young to even remember Voodoo. It will certainly shock them. But D’Angelo’s music isn’t a fad. It’s not a momentary craze. It’s a separate entity unto itself. So, while we wait with bated breath in a world filled with artists singing for sole purpose of topping the charts, the airwaves corrupted with the talentless garbage of auto-tune, D’Angelo may just have enough soul to save music.

 

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