Holdups and false starts kept Voodoo from a ’90s release. Perfectionist D’Angelo had become distracted by weed and weightlifting, and debilitated by sophomore pressure to follow up his groundbreaking 1995 debut Brown Sugar. In the interim he’d fathered two children, switched managers, jumped to a new record label, and made cameos on scattershot soundtracks. Two promo singles dropped: murky, sample-heavy Devil’s Pie in October 1998 and Redman/Method Man-assisted toe-tapper Left and Right a year later. But promises of a full-length studio album evaporated into the ether. Voodoo might have seen its commercial release in November 1999, but a planned duet with Lauryn Hill on a lurching cover of Roberta Flack’s 1975 “Feel Like Making Love” remained unfinished and the album was pushed back until just after the New Year. (The rendition would ultimately wind up on Voodoo as a solo D’Angelo record without Hill.)
Voodoo was a project obsessed with 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s funk and soul—a nostalgic nod to the ideas and inventions of black music trailblazers like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, George Clinton, Kool and the Gang, Al Green, and Prince, powered by avant-garde hip-hop-influenced rhythms. As such, Voodoo is decidedly postmodern, bopping in and out of and between eras without necessarily belonging to any singular era in particular. And perhaps the delayed, dislocated timing of Voodoo’s commercial release suggests a truism about D’Angelo himself: Wherever he seems to go, the time is, as Hamlet once said, out of joint.
Brown Sugar relied on programming, with many of the songs pre-written and arranged before D’Angelo recorded them. Voodoo, on the other hand, was a more organic, improvisatory, and experimental affair. Much of the songwriting occurred in the studio. The innovation kicked off, it seems, with Jimi Hendrix. In a recent interview, Voodoo‘s mix engineer Russ Elevado recounted to me how he helped turn D’Angelo onto Hendrix in the mid ’90s. “All D’Angelo had heard of Jimi at that time were songs like Purple Haze and albums like Are You Experienced,” he said. “I had been hired to mix a few songs on Brown Sugar; and, around ’94 or ’95, I kept trying to play Jimi for D’Angelo but at the time he wasn’t really open to it. Finally when I went down to Virginia to talk about the concept for what was to become Voodoo, D’Angelo and I went out for breakfast, and in the car I popped in Electric Ladyland. He looked at me as if to say: ‘Who is this?’