By Monique Todd
D’Angelo didn’t disappear, he left. He left before the steam off his skin cleared. He left just as his sound found a perfect double in his own image. He left at the point you don’t leave, much like the subtle departures in his own work – a signature off-time eventually made real through physical absence. Certain artists have no intention of playing on beat, both in and out of performance. The rhythmic outcome is elastic, always arriving where it started with varying force.
‘If you truly look at anyone in Black entertainment who has declared a next level thinking of genius there have been some complications along the way,” Questlove reflects in Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo (2019) – Carine Bijlsma’s feature documentary released in April last year. ‘Either in early exits, jail, religion and some just stall, or use time, chronic lateness or just not showing up at all as a way to control things. These are just some of the symptoms. Anyone who is black that started in meagre or so-so conditions that are not of the privileged of the world – when they finally transform to a higher level, it is guilt they feel. And that is one thing that every Black genius wrestles with.’
These exits are frequently individualised, romanticised and made light with rumour. D’Angelo is said to have ‘disappeared’ shortly after his magnum opus Voodoo (2000), for 14 years he didn’t exist because he didn’t make anything we could hear. Devil’s Pie skirts over the specifics of this period, adding little more to what a Google search would offer. The film is better for not answering his absence with expansion on gossip, and Questlove registers the uselessness of closure in that regard. Scandal is always more titillating, everyone loves to ask what happened to D’Angelo? The question supposes that it would’ve been better if he didn’t leave, which is both true and not true at all. D’Angelo’s absence, as well as the refrains, pauses, breaks and escapes patterned by black ‘genius’ performers (Betty Davis, Azealia Banks, Tricky, Lauryn Hill, and more) are tragic symptoms of a carnivorous infrastructure, and a beacon surveying it’s edges.
D’Angelo’s sex appeal is well known, yet often miscredited. There’s an erotics to his shifting gears so slightly, slipping in and out of the track or skirting it’s surface, smoothing the corners off words to suggest more than their meaning. ‘Even if I’m mumbling,’ he says, ‘I like to keep a lot of that initial thing that comes out … cause that’s the spirit.’ To receive the ‘spirit’– that infinite, renewing generosity – requires a succumbing, both on part of the carrier and the witnesses. Expectation and evaluation make for infertile ground, the spirit survives because we don’t know its precise form/s.
‘…Love, jazz and prayer are about being on the threshold, about surrender and falling, the agency of knowing that to be alive is a wild and unsure thing––you pray or play or devote with ferocity, and then there is silence, nothing, patience.’ notes Kevin Quashie in The Quiet of Blackness: Miles Davis and John Coltrane. ‘And as you wait, if you are lucky, you realise that the fulfilment is not in what may come, but how you became in the moment of praying, playing, loving…’
Quashie at once lays out a sequence and negates it. The process of ‘becoming’ emerges as a constant unregulated by time, obvious to those fine-tuned to the rapid and intense movement in quiet motion, and interchangeable, perhaps, with being ‘on the threshold’ – that particular non-space promising ecstasy and release. Is D’Angelo’s genius sounding out that threshold, and the cumulative energy of moving through it? Is his genius the sonic texture of being transformed by that threshold, into an instrument on which it plays? This delicate interplay is plural and intersecting, anything but straightforward. Here, binaries tell on themselves. Patience with urgency, selfishness with generosity, tension and looseness all at once. This is surrender; active and diffused. Moving through and sounding this movement too suspends any overdetermination of reception, in other words, one cannot perform it. Quashie’s The Quiet of Blackness honours interiority, unknowability and inner life. He rallies for an expanded reading of black expressivities ‘animated less by a sense of audience and more by the wide range of human impulses.’ Interiority has its own climate, what it spews out can scold or soothe or strike anywhere between. It’s less about spectacle, and more about feeling…that’s how we truly know its temperature.
Voodoo’s most infamous event, the music video for Untitled, is evidence of an interior largely obscured, not by the video itself but by the (widely) deflated reading of it. In Faith A. Pennick’s book-length analysis of Voodoo, she notes that the video ‘may have served its purpose too well’, a potential symptom of the ‘excess’ frequently loaded onto Black pleasure, smothering its dynamic reality and naming it ‘too much’ by default. ‘What are [the] parameters [of Black pleasure], what are its primal sites, how does Black popular culture or Black culture in general address Black pleasure?’ probes Arthur Jafa. I wondered, when I first heard Questlove articulate the repeated fate of Black genius, if that fate hinged on the very moment we decouple the artist from their interior, or when the interior finally rebels against its shell? If the body is a site for this battle, it appeared to splice D’Angelo in two.
Ruptures and breaks are a looping inevitability always in process, rather than a sudden debut. They confront the obvious instability of continuous production and denied agency, in the many forms it may take. Even at its most stormy and wild, the break is seeking balance, rebelling against those who sought to tame it. D’Angelo’s 14-year absence is a puncture in a vessel that must sink. It’s a reconfiguration, a glitch – a ‘much-needed erratum…a positive departure,’ as Legacy Russell notes in her Digital Dualism And The Glitch Feminism Manifesto. How do we dismantle the violent conditions that can govern silences/breaks/falls, often resulting in neglect and erasure (enacted most harmfully on artists that aren’t cis-male)? How can we reconfigure the break as an opening, rather than a hole? Repair is wasteful labour in this case, glitches spotlight the potential in perpetual collapse.
Devil’s Pie: D’Angelo, dir. Carine Bijlsma (2019) https://fourthree.boilerroom.tv/film/devils-pie-dangelo
The beautiful humanity of D’Angelo and the world that doesn’t deserve him by Reba Maybury (2019) https://theface.com/music/dangelo-devils-pie-voodoo-documentary-music-reba-maybury
Voodoo by Faith A. Pennick (2020)
The Quiet of Blackness: Miles Davis and John Coltrane, published in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (2017)
The Trouble of Publicness: Toward a Theory of Black Quiet (2009)https://mygaryislike.files.wordpress.com/2016/12/blackquiet.pdf
The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography by Jennifer Nash (2014)
Monique Todd is a London-based writer and researcher. Rotating obsessions: medium design and architectural gestures via Keller Easterling, complicated + euphoric libidinal potentials via Jennifer Nash. Currently meditating on this line by Ain Bailey: ‘Some sounds are about what’s missing: the togetherness of birdsong; the recorded roar of Beyoncé’s Coachella crowd; the quietness of the sky; or else the sound of the boundary itself – voices of vulnerable friends who can’t open the door, talking instead through the wood.’