After D’Angelo’s debut Brown Sugar dropped in 1995, sprinkling its sweet flavor all over the R&B game, the neo-soul movement began in earnest. That sound — rooted in classic ’70s soul but with a fresh hip-hop swag and Afrocentrism — continued with the release of other landmark R&B albums such as Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite by Maxwell in 1996 and Erykah Badu’s Baduizm in 1997. But just when it seemed that neo-soul may have peaked in the late ’90s, there were even better things to come from the genre in 2000.
It all started with the release of D’Angelo’s second album, Voodoo, 20 years ago on Jan. 25, 2000. For many, Brown Sugar was already a classic that was going to be near impossible to top. But the magical, mystical Voodoo — taking D to another level as an artist — was instantly his masterpiece. Not only did the LP go on to win D’Angelo his first two Grammys, including best R&B album, but it ushered in a banner year for neo-soul. In fact, after albums like Jill Scott’s Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 and Badu’s Mama’s Gun followed Voodoo later in 2000, it would go down as the best year in neo-soul history.
Although “Devil’s Pie” and “Left & Right” were the first singles released — in 1998 and 1999, respectively — Voodoo really began to cast its spell when “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” dropped on New Year’s Day 2000. The song was a new beginning for D’Angelo: Co-written and co-produced by another neo-soul man, Raphael Saadiq, it’s a do-me slow jam straight out of the Prince playbook, building to an orgasmic falsetto release (over seven tantalizing minutes on the album version). And of course, it’s hard to separate the song from its iconic video featuring a naked and ripped D’Angelo dripping sex appeal all over his washboard abs.
When the Voodoo album arrived, it was clear that D’Angelo wasn’t just neo-soul’s latest sex symbol — he was bringing a whole new juju to the genre. Mostly self-produced — with some help from Saadiq and Gang Starr’s DJ Premier — the album flows with complex rhythms and arrangements played by ace musicians like Questlove (drums), Pino Palladino (bass), Roy Hargrove (horns) and James Poyser (keyboards). Stretching into uncharted R&B territory, it expanded music and minds.
The ante was upped six months later when Scott released her debut album, Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1. Presenting her as an earthy, around-the-way alternative to the ethereal, ankh-rocking Badu, the insta-classic brought something new to neo-soul, introducing spoken word and a personality as strong as those pipes.
Four months later, Badu delivered her second studio album, Mama’s Gun. As if she had something to prove now that Scott was a new neo-soul queen on the scene, the LP upped her game from Baduizm much in the same way that D’Angelo did from Brown Sugar to Voodoo. And just as Voodoo is D’Angelo’s masterpiece, Mama’s Gun is Badu’s.
From Amel Larrieux’s Infinite Possibilities to Musiq Soulchild’s Aijuswanaseing, there were other notable neo-soul albums that came in Voodoo‘s wake in 2000. There was some powerful mojo in the air. But all that magic came at a cost for D’Angelo, who, due to personal problems and professional pressures, struggled to follow up such a sublime achievement. The weight of the expectations that he had set for with himself with Voodoo had become a burden. He wouldn’t release another album until Black Messiah in December 2014.
More than five years later, we’re still waiting for the next D’Angelo album. Here’s hoping it won’t be another 14-year wait.