Rewind: The Promising 21-Year-Old Soul (D'Angelo) 22 Years Later
Since his 1995 debut album ‘Brown Sugar’ dropped, D’Angelo has heavily imprinted his name in 90s R&B history. The record was a hit; and still is 22 years later, selling over two million copies. Beginning his music career at 21 years old, D’Angelo has become well-known for his mastery in jazz, R&B, hip-hop and soul music, ultimately granting him recognition as a key pioneer of neo-soul’s growth in the 90s.
Legally named Michael Archer, the multi-instrumentalist is the son of a Pentecostal minister and grew up in Richmond, Virginia where he taught himself to play the piano as a young boy. D’Angelo only continued to prosper with time, winning amateur talent competitions at Harlem's Apollo Theater three weeks in a row at age 18.
In 1991, the artist would go on to sign a publishing contract with EMI. The singer/songwriter’s first major contribution in the music industry came with co-writing and co-producing the 1994 gospel song “U Will Know,” featuring a number of popular R&B artists such as Keith Sweat, Usher, Tevin Campbell and more. D’Angelo name on that opportune track, really helped him gain traction for his first record to circulate.
If you’re into slow, rhythmic R&B and a great voice—look no further. The talented musician starts off his record with the record title track, where a video opens with a dialogue about “The real ‘Brown Sugar;’” meaning the beautiful brown-skinned women that have the ‘sugar’ D’Angelo is so taken by, he could write a song about it. D’s smooth vocals sensually take prominence over the catchy tune
Another favorite off ‘Brown Sugar,’ is D’s cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Lady.” D’Angelo again gets tripped up by a special lady, and romantically serenades her with his sweet sound.
D’Angelo’s lyrics are sweet, simple and repetitive—but it’s his incredibly easy singing voice and impeccable timing that make every track on the album easy to listen to. Instantly enticing groovy electronic guitar and bass lay the groundwork for the fun track, “Alright.” The bass follows a creeping tune that mixes very well with the simple rhythmic drum beat. An echoing chorus supports D’s convincing vocal while buoyant organ keys sneak their way to the forefront. We agree, “Everything’s gonna be alright.” Also gracefully touched by the electric guitar, “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine,” is a more upbeat groove with gentle harmonies.
D’Angelo’s tracks so smoothly and gradually expand. The artist adds instrumentation that compliments the feel of each track. In the incredibly “Smooth,” the piano solos help establish the song as one of the jazziest on the album.
“Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” is the only explicit track on the record. D’Angelo soulfully sings about his woman and her ‘other man.’ “I’m ‘bout to go get my nine/And kill both of y’all behind,” he voices. The track gained much attention, and even stars in a scene of the 1999 movie ‘The Best Man.’
On a brighter note, “When We Get By” is bright, encouraging and covered from Ray Charles. D covers another hit with Smokey Robinson’s 1979 “Cruisin;” but in a slightly different way. The singer sped up the tempo, yet produced that same swaying rhythm and guitar riffs.
It’s truly something to hear an artist’s first release—to know how vulnerable they are willing to be, and to listen as they introduce themselves to you. What’s even more special, is when you can hear the artist’s potential, and feel the soul in their music. D’Angelo closes out his ‘Brown Sugar’ with another uplifting track, “Higher.” D reiterates his range and wisely takes us higher with the final, soulful song. D’Angelo practiced and wrote the songs in his bedroom that would soon reach millions. In an interview in 2014, the artist recalled, “I wrote … the majority of that record in my bedroom in Richmond… And all of the demos for it were done on a four-track.” D broke himself out with this record, and quickly became the musician/singer—expert in both 90s hip-hop and rap.