D’aily 9/24/20: Untitled (How Does It Feel)

I’ve been cruising all week typing these D’Angelo posts. Enjoying every moment. Proud of myself for finally starting this project. Then I reshuffled my D’aily Song Randomizer for today’s song and it gave me “Untitled (How Does it Feel).” I’ll tell you exactly how it feels: daunting. I’m not worthy or capable of analyzing a work of art this masterful. I’ll try, though…

Let me get the stats out of the way first. “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is the 12th track from D’Angelo’s 2000 magnum opus Voodoo. It was written and produced by D’Angelo and Raphael Saadiq. Saadiq performed guitar and bass. D’Angelo played all other instruments. “Untitled” peaked at #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in February of 2000. It won a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. It lost the Grammy for Best R&B Song (a songwriter’s award) to “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child. Look…I enjoy Destiny’s Child, but when I saw that “Say My Name” won a songwriting award over “Untitled” I had to stop myself from throwing my monitor out the window and setting my computer on fire. If it pleases the court the plaintiff would like to submit this atrocity as evidence in the case of Music Listeners v. Grammy Voters. I also request permission to ask the defendants what tragic accident caused them to lose both their ears and souls.

Initially I had a grand idea to be the first person ever to discuss “Untitled” on its own without mentioning the music video. That, however, can’t be done. The “Untitled” video impacted D’Angelo’s life and career too much to ignore. Instead, I’ll give the abbreviated version since this story has been told thousands of times. Here goes:

D’Angelo got himself into amazing shape as he was recording Voodoo. His manager, Dominique Trenier, figured that a nude D’Angelo singing directly to women in a music video would help sell records. He wasn’t wrong. Here’s the flaw: Despite his looks and physique D’Angelo was not comfortable with the sex god label being slapped on him by…well, everyone. He’s a shy music nerd at heart. Nobody anticipated that the video would overshadow the music, or if they did, they didn’t warn D’Angelo. Soon women at his concerts were more interested in him taking off his shirt than they were listening to his music. He wasn’t comfortable being objectified and he brought it on himself. He started lashing out. Wondering if people would continue buying his music and listening to his concerts if he didn’t look like the sexy dude in the video. The next 10 years of his life saw drug addiction, multiple arrests, trips to rehab, and a near-fatal car accident. I’m not saying that was all a result of one video, but I’m not saying it’s not.

In my research for this I came across an Entertainment Weekly article from 2008 that perfectly summarizes the problem. The headline: “D’Angelo’s Preparing To Bring Sexy Back!” EW wasn’t interviewing D’Angelo or anyone in his camp about his music or his then-eight year hiatus. They were interviewing his personal trainer, Mark Jenkins, about his ability to bring sexy back! The interview asks 14 questions. Here are the first few:

What did D’Angelo look like when you first got the call to start training him again?
When was that?
How much did he weigh at the time?
How big was he at his worst?
As a trainer, how did it make you feel – no pun intended – to see him let himself go like that?
What’s his workout regime?
How’s his fitness goal?
Is he striving to reclaim his sex symbol status?
How close is he to reaching his goal?

Let me get this straight: Entertainment Weekly had access to someone close to D’Angelo – the greatest singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist of a generation – in 2008 and it took the interviewer 12 questions before his music was mentioned? They did manage to ask if he’s striving to reclaim his sex symbol status because that’s fucking important.

From my own personal experiences I can tell you that when I mention D’Angelo to pretty much anyone except for my brother the reaction is usually, “Isn’t that the naked dude from the video?” That used to be followed by some horrible joke about how I must be gay if I like that video. My sister still talks about her friend in college who would run up to the TV when that video came on and she would look down, joking attempting to see below his waist.

My personal take on the video: It’s brilliant. Stunning. Maybe the ballsiest video I’ve ever seen. The song is D’Angelo completely opening himself up.

Girl, it’s only you
Have it your way
And if you want, you can decide
And if you’ll have me
I can provide everything that you desire
If you get a feeling
Feeling that I’m feeling
Won’t you come closer to me, baby?
Now you’ve already got me right where you want me, baby
I just wanna be your man
How does it feel?

As if those lyrics weren’t enough, here’s a shirtless, sweating, handsome, chiseled, cornrowed black man singing in a gorgeous floating falsetto. He’s simultaneously the most vulnerable and confident motherfucker on the planet. Once you’ve seen it you can’t imagine another visual for the song. Just D’Angelo at his rawest, baring his soul for the camera. I can see why women immediately fell in love with him. It’s truly unforgettable. Here’s what I don’t like about it:

It takes away from the music. It KILLS me that the majority of people who know of D’Angelo remember him for that one thing. I can’t imagine how it eats at him. I dig a cool video as much as anyone, but >99% of the time when I’m listening to music I’m not watching a video with it. I’m not going to continue listening to a bad song with a cool video. Ultimately I don’t care about a video. “Untitled” is a masterpiece. It’s as close to perfect as music gets. But all of those homophobes that I mentioned earlier wouldn’t listen to it because he’s naked in the video. Many of the women who got tickets to his concerts couldn’t hear the song because they were too busy yelling, “Take it off!”

Have they actually listened to this song?

It stops me dead in my tracks when it starts. When I hear that rimshot and bass drum, then the melody oozes out of Raphael Saadiq’s guitar it’s still as breathtaking now as it was 21 years ago. It’s an analog, more mature, soulful brother of Prince’s classic 1981 ballad “Do Me Baby.” D’Angelo has only covered one Prince song on record (“She’s Always In My Hair“) but “Untitled” is his best Prince song. While The Artist Formerly Known As Prince struggled through his uninspiring Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic phase, D’Angelo became Yoda. He out-Princed Prince. I’ve heard a theory that the next ten years of D’Angelo’s life went the way that they did because he was cursed by Prince. He upset the master. Whatever.

Can I talk for a second about the drumming on “Untitled?” I think it’s covertly one of the best drum performances I’ve ever heard. It’s in your face like a Neil Peart solo or Clyde Stubblefield in “Funky Drummer” but it’s amazing nonetheless. I’m not a drummer, but I grew up with a brilliant drummer, and I like to think deep down I’m a drummer somewhere in my soul. I am more impressed by D’Angelo’s drum performance here than I am with anything I’ve heard on an uptempo song. It’s gotta be hard to keep time on a song this slow. To complicate matters, this song is a master class in the Dilla style of staying behind the beat, yet somehow being right on time. There is no metronome on this track and it’s definitely not a drum machine with the quantize feature turned on. This is simply D’Angelo drumming based on feeling.

Shout out to Raphael Saadiq as well. I think Saadiq is on his fourth decade now of being one of the most underrated men in music – certainly in R&B. He was the frontman for Tony! Toni! Toné!, a group that never got the credit they deserved. Seriously, go back and enjoy Sons of Soul or House of Music right now and not only do they still hold up, I guarantee they’re even better than you remember. He’s released five solo albums in the past 20 years, many of which flew under the radar and also deserved more attention. On “Untitled” Saadiq (along with D’Angelo) was robbed of the songwriting Grammy I wrote about above, but he also played bass and a mean lead guitar. In many places that guitar is as important as D’Angelo’s voice. A performance as brilliant and understated as the man himself.

If I’ve accomplished nothing else today I hope I have convinced you that “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” is more than just a video with a hot naked dude. As much as I enjoy claiming that “Suede” is the best song of the 21st century, it’s false. “Untitled” is the best. A brilliant song with a video so iconic it may have irreparably damaged the artist. Much respect and thanks to D’Angelo for giving so much of himself to us.

Before I sign off, I have to credit author Faith A. Pennick for her 33 1/3 book on Voodoo. Much of the info I collected for this post came from her work. If you’re not familiar, 33 1/3 is a series of books about a wide range of music. Each book focuses on an individual album. If you find D’Angelo as fascinating as I do or just want to learn more, Ms. Pennick goes far more in-depth on “Untitled” and everything else Voodoo than I ever could. I enjoyed it so much I read it twice.

Week one of the D’aily is officially over. I’ll be back Monday with more. Enjoy the first weekend of autumn.

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