Alone Together


On Music

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


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?

When D’Angelo’s Black Messiah was released suddenly last month to frenzied, almost automatic praise, I started to recognize what I’ve always enjoyed about his music: it sounds like group R&B. It scratches the same itch. He’s only one man, of course, but on tape D’Angelo’s vocal work presents him as a small (and very tender) army. The tracks on Black Messiah are stacked with vocal overdubs—a recording technique he’s made his signature, singing take after take of the same lyric to different notes. Plenty of singers add emphasis or two-part harmony this way, but no one approaches it with an ear for chorus like D’Angelo; he wrote his first published song, after all, for the Harlem Boys’ Choir. On Black Messiah, as with 2000’s Voodoo, he simply becomes the choir himself, sculpting full, sometimes downright bizarre chord structures and voicings from his overdubs. You hear a quintet, a sextet, hell, maybe even a dodacatet of D’Angelos, all endowed with the mild, dark timbre of his falsetto. The effect is the single most original thing about his music. One man becomes a group, with all the inviting warmth of a group’s sound. The clones beckon.

D’Angelo is hardly the first artist, or even the first male R&B singer, to make artful use of vocal overdubs—think of Prince’s “Adore,” in which a murderers’ row of Purple Ones seduce you in unison, or the mournful congregation of Marvin Gayes on “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.” But today he seems to be one of the few R&B acts pushing the possibility of harmony, or employing it at all: his songs are much more harmonic than melodic, and his song’s hooks, insofar as they exist at all, are more indebted to John Coltrane’s sheets of sound than to anything on the radio. If group R&B is truly done for, he’s proof that its sound still has appeal.

In addition to Prince and Gaye, critics are fond of comparing D’Angelo to Sly Stone, Funkadelic, and Curtis Mayfield; in this week’s New Yorker, Sasha-Frere Jones notices Black Messiah’s similarity to Isaac Hayes’s Black Moses. But no critic seems to have noticed that Black Messiah shares its name most blatantly with a record from Cannonball Adderley, The Black Messiah, one of the great overlooked jazz-fusion albums of the early seventies, later abundantly sampled by hip-hop artists. D’Angelo has never acknowledged the namesake, but he must be aware of it. Adderley’s Messiah is deep, murky, and shambolic, like D’Angelo’s; it came toward the end of the saxophonist’s career, when he was borrowing from every genre around, trying to move his music forward while retaining what made it his own. In the process, his band, usually a quintet, had fully doubled in size. “Now, I don’t give a damn whether you can count or not,” he tells the audience before one song. “We still are the Cannonball Adderley Quintet!” D’Angelo’s album makes the exact opposite point: one is mistaken for many. But the strength of both records is that they make you lose count.

*Two other groups, Terror Squad and Dem Franchize Boyz, had number-one songs on the Billboard R&B charts in the mid-2000s, but both were hip-hop acts, not R&B.

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.