Over 14 years after his last album, the seminal neo-soul text, “Voodoo,” defined an era, D’Angelo sauntered on stage in a classroom-sized theater at the Brooklyn Museum – as if he hadn’t been gone a day. His signature cornrows dangled beneath a black fedora, cocked to the side, as he slumped into a leather couch on stage and threw one arm over the back of it. Heavier set than the iconic images from the infamously intimate “Untitled (How Does it Feel?)” music video and the cover of “Voodoo” (that still define him for millions of fawning fans), he had the build of a retired football player in a black leather jacket, grey scarf and ripped, baggy jeans. Speaking in a soothing southern drawl and frequently meeting questions with sustained, contemplative pause, he dripped with the timeless cool of the R&B legends with whom he has often been compared: Marvin Gaye, Prince, Al Green.
Nelson George, the journalist, documentarian and former Billboard columnist, moderated the conversation – a special presentation of the month-long Red Bull Music Academy New York Festival. After a GQ cover story in 2012, it was only the second substantial D’Angelo interview to have taken place in over a decade.
As is customary at RBMA events – which sometimes include lectures – discussion was restricted largely to the craft of music, with ample time devoted to matters of guitar technique and the various, uncommon gifts of D’angelo’s accomplished band members. For an artist who has been remarkably off-the-map for over ten years, suffering from reported alcohol and substance abuse, depression and a near-fatal car crash, the chosen line of questioning was sometimes frustratingly anodyne.
But the crowd didn’t seem to mind. They clutched their chests and leaned forward in their seats, delighted at the opportunity to spend an hour with the elusive and mercurial figure. The mood was jovial and light-hearted, like a family gathering enlivened by a beloved but transient cousin. During several musical interludes, which saw D’Angelo himself brazenly light up a cigarette* on stage, audience members lost themselves and were transported by the warm, evocative sounds of “Playa Playa” and “Devil’s Pie.” When the music stopped, the crowd became despondent.