D'Angelo, "D'Angelo Essence Festival Rehearsals 1998", Album Review
-These recordings only convince me even further that Michael Archer is a freaking godsend, because only an artist with some divine kind of ability can compose stunning materials, and later only turn them into more astonishing products every time they perform them.
Well, shit, my apologies. This is neither a studio album nor new material--D'Angelo Essense Festival Rehearsals 1998 ('98... my bad, REALLY not new) is only a rare raw recording that recently surfaced on OkayPlayer (thank the lord for OkayPlayer) and features a young, pre-Voodoo-era prodigy from VA, fresh off the success and exposure he generated from that good Brown Sugar 3 years prior to that, doing his thing with, uh, excuse me, an F-ing G.O.A.T crew (D'Angelo was my age in 1998, and he already got this crew assembled?!) consisting of Brother Quest, guitarist Spanky (RIP), Pino, and a young Anthony Hamilton and an even younger Bilal (!! and 19 years old), getting ready for a performance only few were lucky enough to witness. Funny how in the historic context of the neo-soul movement, 1998 was when legends weren't yet legends, but it was probably the most exciting time for music fans to be alive and expecting new material, because with this new wave of revolutionary artists (Badu, Maxwell, The Roots, Mos Def, and uh, Lauryn Hill...? *Rest in peace, all Lauryn Hill fans' dream the next 20 years) all hungry for new creations and full of vibrant imaginations, the creative industry was probably at an unprecedented height of talent and peculiarity. Quest and D had just met (with a little indirect help from Prince), Lauryn Hill broke away from the Fugees and released an all-time great record, Black Star was still together and racking shit up... how I wish I wasn't only 6 and living outside the States back then.
I decided to quickly review this little gem right here instead of any new albums for 2 reasons: I haven't dug out any new release that got me excited enough to put my perspectives into words (listened to Laura Mvula's new album and was disappointed, although it was probably one of the better releases these past 2 weeks); second, when it comes to D'Angelo, a man amongst boys, someone who 100% without a doubt would've gotten up within the same league of legends as Stevie Wonder, James Brown and his own hero Marvin Gaye if he hadn't unfortunately fallen victim of the twisted psychology of the music industry and into obscurity during the 2000's, any material is something to throw a party for. For hardcore D'Angelo fans like us, it is an unbelievable adrenaline-rush to study the chronicles of the R&B Jesus and learn how he developed over the years and matured into the man today. Also, with a band like that, I'd pay money to listen to every single rehearsal they ever did. I'd pay just to hear them f**k up, even.
Now that I'm done kissing another man's ass, let's f**k with this tape. Rehearsal tapes are usually raw and not mixed very well, because they're never meant to be released, but these recordings sound incredibly put together, processed and compressed in a delicate way they sound even better than many professional live album recordings I've heard before. D'Angelo is famous for using outstanding sound engineers, in both studio and live performance settings (check out his performance of "Really Love" on SNL if you haven't... a perfect example of elite live mixing), and this rehearsal recording sounds like another product of that, though free of reverb. Instrumentation is simple, but all instruments are positioned in the exact right tone and layered almost flawlessly. Quest exercises the rhythmic looseness on the crisp drums that he'd discussed D'Angelo demanded, giving the sound a lazy potential yet full of energy. I'm now hesitant to call this only a "rehearsal tape", because it sounds extremely precise--maybe because it was a final run-through, or because D'Angelo simply doesn't allow mistakes in his rehearsals. The opening act "Ain't It Funky Now" sees D'Angelo doing a low-key James Brown impression, with the driving drum pattern, supporting horns and ringing electric guitar. Not sure D actually opened the show in the subtle way like it sounds here in the recording, but this track is free of all the screeching and screaming we've gotten used to seeing in his performance ever since Voodoo was released. As we move on to the syncopated opening of "Jonz in My Bonz", we hear the signature wah-wah organ, so incredibly rich and fat, layered upon the repetitive keyboard riff and addition on the electric guitar, and this is where the funk begins. A big shout-out to Quest again, because he's one of the very few drummers I've heard that can produce this compressed sound that's both emphatic and subdued at the same time. I'll always respect him for that.
It's a nice touch to use the beginning of "Cruisin'", the famed Smokey Robinson and The Miracles cover on Brown Sugar, as only an intro to my personal favorite, "Dreamin' Eyes". "Cruisin'" was always the song people went crazy for from his debut album, ranked right below the title track, and being the wizard who always does the unexpected, D'Angelo certainly wasn't going to play it again and instead merely used the song as a transition tool. Let's quickly discuss Bilal's back-up singing: I *LOVE IT*. I'm accustomed to hearing Anthony Hamilton's smooth and grown voice in the lower register in D'Angelo live recordings, but hearing the raspiness and squeechiness in Bilal's vocals makes me ecstatic, almost in the same way an old band's reunion tour brings joy to its hardcore fans. Let's also not forget that Erykah Badu actually got started singing back-up for D'Angelo circa Brown Sugar--talking about bringing up talents!
"Send it on... It's a new song." Yep, this is the only song from this rehearsal tape that came from Voodoo. D'Angelo also performed it at his Stockholm show in 2000, which hey, if you haven't heard yet, message me and I'll send it over (or on*), because you simply cannot miss it. As someone who recently picked up the E-Guitar, listening to this song performed in a live setting is incredibly satisfying and ear-opening, as the doubling of the guitar becomes clear, and riffs sound that much more fulfilling in its raw form. "When We Get By" is also rehearsed in this recording, marking it the first time I've ever heard D'Angelo perform this beloved tune live. As someone who's covered this song in the past, I can't say anything more about this song other than, man it's delightful, just so pleasant.
Nothing that much more exciting happen at the end of this rehearsal recording, other than the fact it marks the first time (in recorded history) D'Angelo did the intro of Brown Sugar in the repetitive funk-out fashion as he usually does nowadays, but he did not perform the Brown Sugar intro in this maniacal and freakishly emphatic style in the formally-released Live at the Jazz Cafe, recording of a show he did in London in 1995, so this must've been one of the first times. The rest of Brown Sugar was also turned into a crowd interaction, the same way it did in the Stockholm show, as D flipped the latter half of the song and turned it into an ATCQ tribute and a mashup with "Check the Rhime". Only one of the many different ways D has performed this legend of a tune. "Lady" similarly is also converted into a funk affair, with the classic bass line turned into vigorous buzz of intensity with Pino slapping the hell out of it, the otherwise soothing love statement becoming a hard-hitting, sly-and-family-esque symphony of chaotic excellence. What a way to wrap up a show.
I've lucky enough to have heard all of these special renditions of the songs before, from various live performances of D'Angelo, but it's a different feeling checking them out in an intimate, accurate and personal setting. These recordings only convince me even further that Michael Archer is a freaking godsend, because only an artist with some divine kind of ability can compose stunning materials, and later only turn them into more astonishing products every time they perform them. Every fresh take is a beauty on its own, and it's so very rare that an artist gets to both take matter into their own hands and be able to assemble and command other fellow greats perfectly. When's the companion piece to Black Messiah coming out?