Ten Most Influential Albums: Brown Sugar

This is post #7 in a 10-post series.  If you missed the earlier posts and would like to read them, here they are:


He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper

The Low End Theory

Forever My Lady

A Night at Birdland

Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space)

I’m going to start tonight’s post with a topic I’ve wanted to touch on for as long as I’ve been writing but have never found the right time or reason.  I hear and read about people all the time who want to hear music they can relate to.  They say they don’t like something because they can’t relate to it.  I can think of few things more boring.  I much prefer music that I don’t relate to at all.  That probably sounds like nonsense but let me explain.  I’m a happily married father of three.  Been at the same job for 20 years.  I’m an IT Director.  Why on Earth would I want to listen to music that I can relate to?  Who’s singing those songs?  I don’t care to know who because they’d probably put me to sleep.

Here’s one thing I do understand: Why it would be important for anyone who feels misunderstood or under-represented to hear music that they can relate to.  If you’re used to seeing straight, Christian white dudes everywhere it must mean a lot to hear someone representing you.  That’s the kind of art that inspires.  What’s the equivalent for someone like me?  “Thank God I’m a Country Boy?”  Not a fucking chance.

I’d much rather hear music that takes me somewhere.  It’s an escape.  Hip hop made me see a completely different perspective that felt so far away it was like a different planet.  I realize how privileged and fortunate I was to observe something that felt dangerous and exciting from afar through music as opposed to living it, where it probably felt more like hell than excitement.  The closest I ever came to bigotry was being called wigger on a daily basis in high school by a handful of ignorant classmates.  It’s a combination of white and…you get it.  Or was it wannabe? Either way, not clever.  Fucking disgusting, really.  Still, nothing compared to people going through real issues.  Their stories were being told by musicians for the entertainment of people like me.  I could’ve simply stopped listening to hip hop, turned my hat around, taken off the Cross Colours shorts, taken the Shawn Kemp pictures out of my locker and my classmates would’ve likely stopped messing with me.  Not an option for people experiencing real bigotry and hatred.

Despite my desire to hear something different in my music, there are some universal topics that all people feel and understand regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.  At the top of that list would be love.  Who doesn’t relate to a good love song?  Who makes better love songs than soul singers?  Stevie.  Marvin.  Aretha. Al Green.  Bill Withers, rest in peace.  Prince.  Yeah, I said Prince.  I wouldn’t call him a soul singer, per se, but he could be any damned genre he wanted.  He was Prince, damn it.  Tell me “Adore” isn’t a soul song.  At some point in the 80’s from my perspective it seems like soul went away.  Who was singing soul music?  Jeffrey Osborne, James Ingram, and Peabo Bryson?  Meh.  I don’t hear or read about a lot of people talking about the heyday of James Ingram the same way they do Marvin Gaye.  Anita Baker singlehandedly kept that torch burning.  Someone older than I was in the 80’s can probably speak to it better than I can, but from my perspective soul music was dead by the end of the 80’s.  Replaced by the R&B I wrote about in my Jodeci post.

What’s the difference between soul and R&B, you ask?  I’m not sure.  I just know I can hear the difference…or at least I think I can.  When I was growing up R&B was almost all about partying and getting girls.  Still is, right?  Actually, does R&B even exist anymore?  Soul music is about real emotion.  Love, passion, anger, injustice, and heartache.  It sounds and feels more organic.  Makes you feel things in your core.  Your soul.  Thus, the name…I assume.  I could be completely wrong.  I’m just making this up as I go along.

In 1995 I was introduced to soul music.  Not the Motown stuff I grew up hearing when my dad listened to it.  I dug that, too.  This soul music felt like my generation.  Actual modern musicians in 1995 playing soul music.  I’m not gonna call it “neo-soul” because I’m not a fan of that label.  I think it was a lazy way of categorizing “music by black people that doesn’t sound like the other music made by black people.”  Soul music is soul music.  Period.  It transcends time.  There isn’t anything “neo” about it.

It was a routine trip to Fox River Mall in Appleton, Wisconsin, with my boys Tyson and Craig.  We were in a music store.  Not Sam Goody, but the one way at the end of the mall by Sears.  I can’t remember the name.  They had multiple CD listening stations, each promoting music from a different genre.  At the R&B station I saw a CD called Brown Sugar that I had never heard of.  I thought, “I’m just standing here doing nothing.  I might as well check this out.”

I put on the headphones, pressed play, and happened next was transformative and beautiful.  Do you ever hear a song and know within seconds that you love it?  Ten seconds in to “Brown Sugar” I not only knew I needed to purchase it right then and there, but that it was the best CD I’d ever heard.  I’m only exaggerating slightly.  I skipped to the next song.  Maybe even better.  And the next.  And so on.  I wanted to scream, “HOLY SHIT, HAVE YOU PEOPLE HEARD THIS?  Why aren’t people buying this up like Thriller,” in the middle of the store, but I’m not a lunatic.

The man behind this music is Michael Eugene Archer, better known as D’Angelo.  Son of a Pentecostal preacher in Virginia.  Learned to play piano at a very young age.  Sang and played organ in his dad’s church.  He took a liking to secular music (Prince) but his dad wouldn’t let him listen to it so he had to hide it.  Went to New York when he was old enough and started winning Amateur Night at the Apollo.  Recorded Brown Sugar when he was only 20 years old.  Composed, performed, arranged, and produced the album himself much like Prince before him.

For lack of a better way to phrase it, Brown Sugar felt like real music.  I had graduated from the corny shit I was previously in to.  The other R&B cats like Jodeci, Boyz II Men, and R. Kelly were immediately kicked to the curb.  I didn’t need to hear anybody other than D’Angelo singing anything ever again.  D’Angelo was just the start of a rebirth of soul music.  Erykah Badu, Bilal, Angie Stone, Maxwell.  Man, I still love Erykah nearly as much as D…listening to her as I type this, in fact.  I tried my ass off to get into Maxwell but was never quite fully feeling his music.  True story: I went on a few dates with a girl in Milwaukee who was really cool, or so I thought.  On our third or fourth date she completely dismissed D’Angelo and boldly declared that Maxwell was much better.  I acted like I was OK with it, but in my mind I knew I couldn’t look past it.  It’s not like I stormed out or anything.  We finished the date cordially, but we never went out again.  No phone calls.  Nothing.  I could not date a woman who was so certain that Maxwell was better than D’Angelo.  I realize this is insanity on par with Jerry Seinfeld dumping the woman who ate her peas individually with a fork, but sometimes you just know.  She never called me again either that I know of, so I must’ve done something to rub her the wrong way as well.  I wonder if she tells the story now about the guy who she went on a couple of dates with but couldn’t look at the same because he liked D’Angelo better than Maxwell.  It was an idiotic move on my part because it’s not like I had a line of girls waiting in the wings.  A few months later I started dating the woman who is now my wife, so I guess it all worked out.  Good thing she likes D’Angelo.

The moment I heard D he changed the way I looked at music.  I still like much of my pre-D’Angelo music, but it’s more about nostalgia than it is love of the music.  Brown Sugar is music I feel in my soul.  D’Angelo doesn’t just sing.  He moves you.  You hear Me and those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine and remember exactly how it felt to see someone you were in love with even though that person didn’t even know you existed.  You hear Alright and know that if you love someone enough you can look past your disagreements.  You hear Brown Sugar and think it sounds like he’s singing about a woman, but you know deep down the song is really about how much he loves weed.  You hear Shit, Damn, Motherfucker and understand how it feels to black out and commit a double homicide after catching your best friend sleeping with your wife.  Wait, what?  Seriously, every song is a masterpiece.  Never has an album been as influential for me.  I’ve been chasing the feeling I had when I heard Brown Sugar for the first time for the last 25 years and doubt it will ever happen to me again.  The closest I’ve come since was D’Angelo’s other two albums, but the element of surprise wasn’t there like it was the time I went to the mall and accidentally stumbled in to the best music I had ever heard.

Brown Sugar was the album that introduced me to soul music and left pop R&B in the dust.  Next up is the album that introduced me to “real” hip hop and left all the rappers I’d been listening to behind.


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