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Posts Tagged ‘D’Angelo’

Staff Picks: Blackass, Academic Robes, Floppy Disks

April 29, 2016 | by

Photo: Anil Dash

There’s a scene in The Producers in which Max Bialystock finds Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a script and rejects after reading the first line; “It’s too good,” he complains. I thought of this as I began reading A. Igoni Barrett’s novel Blackass, which takes Gregor Samsa’s experience as its starting point: Furo Wariboko wakes to discover that he has metamorphosed from a black Nigerian to a white Nigerian, which is a sort of person who doesn’t really exist. It’s hard to improve on Kafka’s original, but, luckily, that isn’t Barrett’s aim. Furo’s transformation into an impossible creature puts him in a unique position: he is white, and so has a natural power over his black countrymen, and he can speak Nigerian pidgin, which gives him influence with that same group; he is feared and respected. In Furo’s navigation from one of Lagos’s many struggling unemployed young people to a man of privilege and agency, Barrett deftly transmutes him from metaphor into full-fledged character. Barrett also employs a handful of secondary characters who metamorphose in other, less spectacular ways that are likewise tied to issues of race, gender, money, and status. (I thought, too, of Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, another novel that mixes reality and the fantastical to great effect.) The freedom that reinvention engenders proves intoxicating. As one character marvels, “I was whoever I wanted me to be.” —Nicole Rudick

I trust you weren’t expecting me to discuss anyone or anything other than Prince this week. I’d like to share three of the many remembrances that have moved me to tears. First is the story of a floppy disk that Prince distributed to the press in 1993, when he’d changed his name to the unpronounceable Love Symbol: the disk contained a font allowing journalists to type the glyph in place of his name. (“It just seemed like a logical thing to do,” his graphic designer said.) Second is an interview with his personal chef, Ray Roberts, who reveals Prince’s favorite desserts; while Ray was cooking, he often overheard Prince in diligent rehearsal. (“The kitchen was adjacent to the sound studio, so the biggest treat of all for Ray was hearing the music, every day, loud and clear in the kitchen … He says Prince would regularly play three seconds of a song, dozens of times in a row, to get it right.”) And the third is D’Angelo’s performance of “Sometimes It Snows in April” from the Tonight Show this week, which reduced me to a puddle. Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad … —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Alone Together

January 8, 2015 | by

On D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and the disappearance of R&B groups.

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From the cover of Black Messiah.

The last number-one R&B single from a group was “Independent Women,” by Destiny’s Child. Since it slipped from Billboard’s top slot in January 2001, only solo acts have held the position.* Groups have all but disappeared from the mainstream in every genre, but their absence is especially apparent in R&B, where, in 1994, for instance, four of the ten number-one singles were by groups, and in 1974, thirteen R&B groups made it to the top of the charts. Now, zero—for fifteen years, solo artists have dominated music. Who knew the thesis of Bowling Alone applied even to this, our most collaborative art form?

Anyone can rattle off the names of big R&B groups: Earth Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers, TLC, Boyz II Men, the Supremes, the Pointer Sisters, the Force MDs, Jodeci, and on and on. What these groups foregrounded—and what’s noticeably lacking in present-day R&B—were vocal harmonies. Obviously the Top 40 is still loaded with backup singers; I don’t mean to say that vocal harmony has gone extinct. But a certain kind of performance has gone missing from the charts, a choral style for trios, quartets, or quintets, where the harmony was just as essential as the melody. In songs like these, you could hear the genre’s connection to jazz and especially to gospel.

Not that you have to be a music scholar to enjoy the sound of people singing together. At the risk of getting all Kumbaya about it, isn’t it just sort of nice to hear voices working in harmony? To me, the sound of a group has always been more approachable than that of a soloist—a collective is bound to be more welcoming than an individual, especially if they’re a collective of really pretty voices. I think pop music at the moment is as inventive as it’s ever been, but still: Where have our great R&B groups gone, and why have they ceased to capture the public imagination? Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Real Struggle, Real Soul, Real Tennis

May 23, 2014 | by

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D’Angelo, right, with Nelson George at the Brooklyn Museum Wednesday night. Photo: Drew Gurian/Red Bull Content Pool

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle—judging by the half that’s been translated into English—is a tough book for a critic to grapple with: a six-volume autobiographical novel that can spend fifty pages describing a teenage beer run or a second-grader’s first day at school. The book was a sensation when it appeared in Norway, five years ago; since then it has fascinated (and puzzled) many readers in America, from James Wood and Zadie Smith to Jonathan Lethem. Volume Three is my favorite so far, though no doubt the effect is cumulative: I’ve never read such a vivid depiction of ordinary child abuse—the legal, non-sexual kind—from a child’s point of view; I have never seen a writer evoke the world of child’s play so vividly, or the view from the back seat of a car on a long drive. Not everyone feels the love. In The Nation, the irascible William Deresiewicz dismisses My Struggle as a “giant selfie,” wishes Knausgaard wrote more like John Updike or Saul Bellow, and chalks up the enthusiasm of his fans to narcissism: “The spectacle of a fellow author’s self-revelation . . . has obvious professional significance.” It’s rarely a good sign when a reviewer vents his spleen on other readers. For a corrective, see Ben Lerner in the London Review of Books. Lerner notices all the same things as Deresiewicz—Knausgaard’s use of cliche, his digressions, his seeming lack of form or invention—then tries, brilliantly and persuasively, to explain why they work. Lerner places My Struggle in a long tradition of novels at war with novelistic convention, a tradition that he associates with the avant garde and that others might call realism itself. Agree with it or not, this is actual criticism. As Lerner writes: “It’s easy to marshal examples of what makes My Struggle mediocre. The problem is: it’s amazing.” —Lorin Stein

On Wednesday night, I had the great pleasure of seeing an interview with D’Angelo, perhaps the most gifted, elusive artist working in R&B—he’s ascended into the pantheon with Sly Stone and Prince, visionary but inscrutable. With 2000’s Voodoo, D’Angelo made what remains the definitive soul record of the past fifteen years, a languid, earthy tour de force that borrows in equal measure from the church and the street. Since then, he hasn’t released a thing; he’s scarcely even performed in public. So his appearance on Wednesday had a sense of anticipation: would he announce a new album? He didn’t, but he was such a gracious, remarkable, casual speaker that it didn’t matter. NPR has posted a transcript of the conversation, which was held before a sold-out crowd at Brooklyn Museum. It touches on his adolescence in Richmond, Virginia; his painstaking, deeply hermetic recording process; and his gospel-inflected approach to songwriting. Nelson George, the interviewer, put it best when he told D’Angelo, “You’re one of the few people who has mystique, you know that. I mean in the age of TMZ and all that stuff … there’s an aura still about your career. It’s very unusual today for anybody to have any mystery left.” —Dan Piepenbring

I recently unearthed a 1999 LRB review by Edward Said of a tennis anthology edited by the novelist Caryl Phillips. When I think of tennis, I don’t think of Said (nor do I imagine Phillips, for that matter)—all the more reason to give it my attention. I also have a vested interest in tennis. My father grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, and played near the West Side Tennis Club (the club wouldn’t let Jews join, but he did see early professionals such as Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and a sixteen-year-old Chris Evert play there); his father played competitive tennis into his early nineties (the pool of players in his age group was quite small, as you might imagine); and I grew up watching tennis matches on television with my parents and trying to learn the sport myself. Though I only sometimes watch Wimbledon or the US Open now, I can tell the stakes have changed. As Said bemoans, tennis has largely lost its amateur class, and its league of professional players are “technical specialists” ruined by commercial interests. Federer is lovely to watch, but his recent dominance of the game was boring. The women’s game, Said points out, retains its “human pace” and “inventiveness.” That no single woman dominates the sport makes the matches more fun to watch, more exciting, more … sporting. —Nicole Rudick

In 1934, Oscar Reutersvärd pioneered the modeling of “impossible objects,” two-dimensional figures that project a three-dimensional object when viewed from a particular direction. The puzzle game “Monument Valley,” available on both iOS and Android, is built on this optical illusion—a sort of architectural Sudoku. It allows the player to interact with the isometric environment of dead-end paths and trick doors, moving the game’s protagonist, Ida, through gaps that seem to defy logic. The game is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever played. It’s like, as many have noted, an M. C. Escher drawing brought to life. The game designer Ken Wong told Wired, “We hope players will stay engaged for the same reasons they might enjoy a walk through a museum or an art gallery.” —Justin Alvarez Read More »

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