D’Angelo Versus Prince

Something special happened on Saturday, February 27. If you’re not familiar with the web series Verzuz, here’s a synopsis: It started as a “battle” between super-producers Swizz Beats and Timbaland early during the 2020 COVID quarantine. Swizz and Tim went back and forth digging in to their respective catalogs of hits and playing them for over 20,000 delighted internet viewers. The Verzuz title implies competition, but at its heart the show really feels like more of a celebration of music. Social media and bloggers may declare winners, but there is no official winner in this “competition.” Soon Timbaland and Swiss took over the Verzuz premise, got some sponsors, and it has become a regular on the internet over the past year. Verzuz has highlighted stars from multiple generations, featuring hip hop battles like Nelly vs. Ludacris, T-Pain vs. Lil’ Jon and Snoop Dogg vs. DMX, as well as R&B battles like Alicia Keys vs. John Legend, Jill Scott vs. Erykah Badu, Keyshia Cole vs. Ashanti, and Patti LaBelle vs. Gladys Knight.

February 27 featured something different. We got legendary soul/R&B messiah D’Angelo versus…nobody. I heard online that it was supposed to be D’Angelo vs. Maxwell. I saw in some other places that it might be D’Angelo vs. Musiq Soulchild. No disrespect because I dig me some Maxwell and I’m a huge fan of Musiq Soulchild, but I can only think of one person in my lifetime who could hang in this type of musical competition with D’Angelo and he’s no longer with us. That would be Prince.

I’ll get back to D’Angelo Verzuz in a minute. The idea of D’Angelo versus Prince brings us to a bigger issue for me personally. Who’s my favorite? Who’s the best? I don’t know why I struggle with this because it doesn’t matter ultimately, right? Wrong. I can’t have a 1A and 1B in my head. I don’t operate that way. If someone asks me, “Who’s your favorite musician?” I need to have an answer. Not some wishy washy, “Well, it’s either Prince or D’Angelo. It depends on my mood…” No. It’s time to answer this definitively.

Let’s start here: D’Angelo and Prince are #1 and #2 for me in some order. We can discuss #3 some other time, but whoever it is comes in a distant third. If we’re breaking my list down in to tiers, Tier 1 only has two artists. If we go back to the roots of the music that I love, James Brown lit the torch. I know that’s a controversial statement right there. People like Little Richard and Ray Charles made James Brown possible. The problem is, for me once you get past a certain point music just feels…old. No disrespect to the legends. That’s just what my ears hear. James Brown elevated what everyone before him did. He brought the funk. He passed the torch to Stevie Wonder. Stevie passed it to Prince. Prince passed it to D’Angelo. I say this fully aware that I skipped over a lot of brilliant musicians. Let’s just say those four are my soul/funk Mount Rushmore. Where are JB and Stevie on my all-time list? I don’t care right now. I know that they’re not in my Top 2, mainly because the majority of their careers took place before I was born, or at least before I was aware of popular music. By the time I started listening to music in about 1982 JB and Stevie weren’t throwing fastballs anymore. I hate to say “you had to be there” but in order for me to really love them like I do D and Prince I needed to live when they were making their classics. To understand and admire a musician at his/her apex is one thing, but to be there adds another dimension to the experience. I needed to know what it felt like to wait for an album like Talking Book to drop, then be mesmerized by it for an entire year. Live with it as the soundtrack to my life. Unfortunately, instead of having that experience I learned of them through oldies radio stations and greatest hits albums. It wasn’t until I was older and appreciated music more that I went backward and started digging deeper in to their discographies.

Prince and D’Angelo are difficult to compare because while they both possess once-in-a-generation talent, their approaches couldn’t me more different. Prince’s official discography starts in 1978 with For You and spans until 2015’s HitNRun Phase Two. In between, it’s difficult to quantify the amount of music Prince released, much less created. If you count everything including the live albums, the online-only stuff from NPG Music Club, and the other albums he released by giving them away with European magazines and coffee table books, he had 44 albums in his lifetime. He had another three hits/B-sides/remix compilations. Since his death nearly five years ago there have been dozens of vault songs released. If you want to dig even deeper, you can get into his prolific period in the 1980’s when he was writing and performing the music on albums for artists like The Time, Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, and The Family. He also famously wrote songs that became mega-hits for other artists like “Manic Monday” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.” The fantastic Princevault.com has compiled an A-Z list of over 1,000 songs written and/or recorded by Prince. To sum up, dude was prolific.

D’Angelo released Brown Sugar in 1995. His most recent album – Black Messiah – came out in late-2014. In between he released exactly one studio album – Voodoo – along with a live album, a greatest hits compilation (which is a bold move by someone with two LPs), and made occasional appearances on soundtracks or singing hooks on someone else’s songs. I spent half of 2020 writing about a different Prince song every day and that was the tip of the iceberg. I could write about every available D’Angelo song in less than half that time…and I’d like to. Maybe that’ll be my 2021 project.

Now let’s compare accolades: Prince had 47 songs make the Billboard Hot 100 chart. 19 of those songs made the Top 10. Five of them (only 5?!?) made it to #1: “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “Cream,” “Kiss,” and “Batdance.” I know what you’re asking yourself right now, and somehow “Purple Rain” only made it to #2. “When Doves Cry” was the #1 song of the year in 1984. Prince was nominated for 38 Grammy awards and won seven of them. Nominated for 24 American Music Awards and won six. “Purple Rain” won an Academy Award in 1985 for Best Original Song Score. Prince won a Golden Globe. He won four MTV Video Music Awards back when they mattered. He won Lifetime Achievement Awards (or some equivalent) from the American Music Awards, BET Awards, Billboard Music Awards, The Grammys, and Soul Train Music Awards. He’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. I could go on.

D’Angelo has recorded eight Hot 100 songs. His top charting song “Lady” peaked at #10. D has been nominated for 14 Grammy Awards and won four. He has one American Music Award in four nominations.

If we’re talking about cultural impact, this is also no contest. Prince is an icon. He was the ultimate musician and arguably the greatest guitarist who ever lived. He made sexual ambiguity a thing long before it was a thing. He owns an entire color (true Prince heads know he owns peach and black as well…where do you think the color scheme for this website came from?). He wrote and recorded music at a mind-boggling rate. He basically invented the concept of selling his music on the internet, doing it in the 1990’s, well before anything like iTunes and Spotify existed. He was so prolific he needed a way to get his music directly to his fans more quickly. If you want me to go on about Prince you’re late. I already have. There are well over 150 posts on this site about him if you want to read more.

Then there’s D’Angelo. I fear he’s remembered by most as the guy who got naked and supposedly received fellatio in a music video. He didn’t, by the way. He was wearing some low riding sweatpants. Still, my point is, for someone as brilliant as D’Angelo it’s a damn shame that many of the people that do know him remember him as that naked guy from the video. It’s a fantastic video, by the way, and an even better song. It’s also a video that’s apparently haunted him for 21 years since.

This is no competition, right? I’m going to flip this for a minute.

I don’t dare speak ill of Prince, but let me acknowledge facts. In all of those albums and over 1,000 songs there were some stinkers. He was human. The rise of hip hop definitely threw Prince off of his game in the early-90’s and by the time he stopped waving around a gun-shaped microphone and started really embracing his musicianship and being Prince again he had alienated most of his audience. I’ll also politely say that I think the guy could be petty. He spent at least part of the 90’s in a pissing match with Warner Bros. and in doing so released music that was far below the bar that he had set for himself.

None of this can be said about D’Angelo. Three albums. Not a bad track among them. Even the random soundtracks and songs on which he appears are all at least good, if not great. His albums don’t sound dated, particularly his last two, Voodoo and Black Messiah. His music is timeless. He clearly doesn’t have anywhere near the output Prince did, but he hits for a much, much higher average. As was pointed out in Justin Sayles’ fantastic Voodoo retrospective on theringer.com last year, you could make the argument that D’Angelo has the best album of each of the last three decades. His lack of output is maddening, but it has also created a mystique. One thing both have in common is that they’ve done an amazing job of creating an aura of mystery around themselves.

The final point I’ll make in Prince’s favor is that without him there likely is no D’Angelo. I’ve heard him tell the story on numerous occasions that he learned how to play music because of Prince’s self-titled second album. Nobody holds Prince in higher regard than D. When Prince passed nearly five years ago there was only one tribute I wanted to see. It wasn’t Bruno Mars or Usher. It wasn’t Sheila E. or The Time. It sure as hell wasn’t Madonna. It was D’Angelo, who performed a stunning version of “Sometimes it Snows in April” on The Tonight Show.

D’Angelo only dared cover one Prince song on record. It was a perfect choice. He didn’t pick one of the hits. He didn’t even pick a song that made an album. It was the B-side to Prince’s 1985 smash hit “Raspberry Beret” called “She’s Always In My Hair.” One of Prince’s many legendary B-sides from the early/mid-80’s. D’s version was wasted on the Scream 2 movie soundtrack. D took that song made it his own. He slowed it down. Added some electric guitar to give it some edge. Threw in some freaky layered vocals. Here’s the dirty secret:

I like D’Angelo’s version better.

There. I said it. I like D’Angelo better. D wins.

There’s a simple reason, and I already stated it above. D’s version of “She’s Always In My Hair” is the original version for me. I knew it as a D’Angelo song long before I heard Prince’s original. I grew up hearing Prince on the radio and MTV, but I was so young. He was forbidden fruit. I couldn’t own his albums. I didn’t have any money and my dad sure wasn’t buying it for me. By the time I got old enough to buy my own music I still dug Prince, but he was already in his Love Symbol phase and fucking with Warner Bros. I was too young to appreciate his prime.

On the other hand, I was 19 years old when I heard Brown Sugar for the first time and it literally damn near brought me to my knees it was so good. I have had a Google alert set up for D’Angelo’s name for the better part of 15 years because I don’t want to miss a thing. I once stopped dating a girl I had seen a few times because she told me Maxwell was better than D’Angelo. Fucking deal breaker. Couldn’t see myself ever truly connecting with someone who felt that way. I wore out the VHS tape that contained his 1999 performance of “Chicken Grease” on The Chris Rock Show. My brother and I watched and analyzed that performance hundreds of times, right up until D and the Soultronics raised the bar for funk and damn near burned down the 2000 MTV Movie Awards with his performance of “Devil’s Pie.” Voodoo is, without question, the greatest album I’ve ever heard. I’ve said for 20 years now that my greatest regret in life is missing D’Angelo and the Soultronics at Summerfest in Milwaukee on July 4, 2000, because I did the responsible thing and stayed home. I started a new job at 7:00 AM the next day. In hindsight, I should’ve asked if I could start one day later. Also, I’m not sure if it means that my priorities are wildly out of line or I’ve lived a very fortunate life that my greatest regret is missing a concert. Likely both. I did sort of make up for it by taking a Monday off to see D’Angelo and Questlove perform together at First Avenue in Minneapolis on a Sunday night back in June, 2013.

My wife and I danced to “Higher” at our wedding. I spent $50 to buy a bootleg CD of D’Angelo’s August 2000 concert in Stockholm, Sweden, on eBay and I still listen to it at least once a month. I stayed up until 2:00 AM just to and listened in tears to “Sugah Daddy” when he dropped it online in December 2014. I had it on repeat until past 4:00. A few days later when Black Messiah appeared I irresponsibly abandoned my duties as a husband and father and spent an entire evening in my Bose QC15s with the album on a loop. I was actually sick as hell that day and used that as an excuse for why I spent at least five hours that night in my room with headphones on. I wasn’t able to see D with The Vanguard on his Second Coming tour in 2015 as it never came anywhere near where I live. My brother saw him in Seattle and still likes to remind me frequently. My jealousy still runs deep. Bastard. Instead I freak out every time I watch his 2015 North Sea Jazz Festival performance on YouTube.

My entire adult life has been D’Angelo’s prime. Dirty Mind came out when I was four years old. Purple Rain came out when I was eight. I don’t have the same deep relationship with Prince’s music that I do with D’Angelo’s.

For me, without D’Angelo there is no Prince…or at least not Prince as I know him now. D’Angelo is the reason I went back and started my deep dive and obsession with Prince. In 2002 after a few years with Voodoo and the realization that it could be a long time until we see D’Angelo again, that’s when I thought to myself, “If D loves Prince so much, maybe I should go back and and give him another listen.” I will continue to say this forever: If you get bored with music or think there’s nothing good out right now, go backward. Learn about the artists you love and find out who they love. That’s how D led me to Prince and both of them led me to Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, and Jimi Hendrix, among others.

So, back to D’Angelo Verzuz one more time. D was rolling through his discography on cruise control. The internet was on fire, but I have a feeling it’s because they were on a nostalgia trip. Everyone I was following was like, “Oh shit, remember this one?” I was thinking, “Yeah, I remember it. I just listened to it yesterday.” For me D was just playing the same music that I’ve been listening to on a daily basis. I was honestly disappointed. He was walking around talking a lot, and occasionally singing over the studio versions of his own songs that DJ Scratch was spinning. Then the magic happened.

H.E.R. appeared.

If you’re not familiar with H.E.R., she’s now and she’s next. She’s my current hope for the future of soul music. She declared that she was D’Angelo’s biggest fan and he replied that he was hers. I’m going to call him out on some b.s. though. H.E.R. sat down and started an acoustic guitar rendition of her gorgeous duet with Daniel Caesar, “Best Part” and I assume her hope was that he’d join her on the Daniel Caesar parts. If D was her biggest fan I think he would’ve. Instead D just sat and stared in awe, shaking his head at DJ Scratch, acknowledging the brilliance he was witnessing. Then H.E.R. tossed D an alley-top and transitioned seamlessly from “Best Part” in to D’Angelo and Lauryn Hill’s breathtaking 1998 duet “Nothing Even Matters.” D nodded and immediately jumped in on the Rhodes. H.E.R. absolutely crushed Lauryn Hill’s verse. Not to be outdone, D gave us a few soulful verses with H.E.R. on harmony. For a brief few minutes D’Angelo reminded us that there isn’t a musician and vocalist alive who can do it like him. I was breathless. It was another performance that almost moved me to tears, but I was in a room full of people and had to keep my shit together. I didn’t want my kids asking why dad was wiping tears from his face. It was a truly moving performance and I wanted it to last forever. I could’ve listened to those two jam for days. Instead, H.E.R. declared, “Yo, I’m singing with D’Angelo right now. Like, what is life?”

And with that it was over. D spent another 15 minutes walking around while Scratch spun his classics and the event ended. I got my fill of D during his performance with H.E.R. I’ve gotten used to that. You take what he gives and that keeps you going. I haven’t tired of the first three albums yet anyway. Those still fuel me. D’Angelo had a mobile number that you could use to sign up for text updates (which I did, of course) and I bought a t-shirt to commemorate the event. I’d like to think that all of this means that there’s new D’Angelo coming, but you never know with him. More likely, I’ll be texting my brother sometime in 2023 saying, “Remember that D’Angelo Verzuz thing? That was over two years ago, and still no new music. Fuck.”

So there you have it. Prince is the GOAT. He has icon status. He has the mystique. I have paintings of him on my walls, books about him all over my bookshelf, and damn near 100 of his records. I’ve written about him almost 200 times. I have more purple clothes and shoes than any 45 year old man should. I adore him. D’Angelo is still my favorite.

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