In nature, wayward things are often corrected with some equal or greater force. It happens in music often. Someone or something comes along and resets the standards for forward progress. By the mid ’90s mainstream R&B had morphed into a hybrid of formulated studio soul with hip hop elements thrown in. What was once an innovative genre no longer influenced, but was being influenced. That was until D’Angelo arrived.
His debut album Brown Sugar mixed retro soul sounds in a contemporary context that did not depend on hip hop for its relevance. Instead of the samples, real instruments many of them usually associated with jazz or classical created a dense and richly textured sound.
D’Angelo borrowed the swagger of rap but was not trapped by its ghetto sensibility. His tenor reintroduced the concept of the romantic bedroom crooner to a crowd desensitized by hip hop’s cartoonish posturing. The sensuality of D’Angelo’s voice recalled the smoothness of Marvin Gay, bringing a new sophistication to R&B in the process.
It was not quite like anything that came before it outside of Prince. In fact it would later be acknowledged as the album that kick started the neo soul movement as artist like Maxwell, Erykah Badu and Rashaan Patterson would jump on board a few years later.
Much of what made Brown Sugar so special was the traditional instruments. The flute, violin and cello were joined by electric piano to create a warm organic sound. A deep sensual bass underlined many songs like “Jon in My Bonz”. Further sophistication came from jazz elements like the intro and piano bits on “Smooth”.
Although tightly arranged, some tracks were almost freestyle in nature as if purposely incomplete. Weather they were song impressions or fully fleshed tunes, Brown Sugar had four singles that help float the album in the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart for 65 weeks. Not only did songs like “Lady”, and “Brown Sugar” top the R&B charts, others scored hip hop and dance placements as D’Angelo became one of 1995’s most acclaimed new artists.
Brown Sugar almost single handedly turned the tide from the macho bravado of New Jack swing to a more introspective, sensual style that favored traditional soul singing vs. synchronized dance routines with guest rap spots. D’Angelo was at the forefront of a movement spearheaded by sites like okayplayer that promoted neo soul with a more enlightened approach to soul and R&B. It was only the beginning as D’Angelo would refine the formula with his follow-up Voodoo two years later.