The daily streak of breathtakingly beautiful D’Angelo tracks continues. “Africa” is the thirteenth and final track from D’s sophomore masterpiece Voodoo. It was written by D’Angelo, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Angie Stone, and D’Angelo’s older brother, Luther Archer. Arranged and produced by D’Angelo. All vocals by D’Angelo. Guitar by Chalmers “Spanky” Alford and drums by Questlove. All other instruments played by D’Angelo.
I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that it took me years to warm up to “Africa.” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s like when I saw Lollapalooza in 1994. The Beastie Boys were the penultimate act, they tore the roof off the place, and then Smashing Pumpkins had to follow. I was in no mood for Smashing Pumpkins after what I had just seen, although, I was never in the mood for Smashing Pumpkins, so this comparison is flawed. My point is, the twelfth track on Voodoo is “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” and I felt the album should’ve ended with that track. “Africa” was anticlimactic. As with many things I, however, was incorrect.
“Africa” is dedicated to Michael Archer Jr., son of D’Angelo and “Africa” co-writer Angie Stone. For a song that clocks in at over five minutes the lyrics are sparse but effective. I’m oversimplifying, but the lyrics bind Africa with God and love for his son. I have to admit, whenever I hear “Africa” I dwell on the opening lyrics:
Africa is my descent
and here I am far from home
I dwell within a land that’s meant
meant for many men not my tone
I realize that D’Angelo feeling out of place in a land far from home isn’t the premise of the song, but a piece of the bigger message in the song. However, it bothers me that in a country that claims “all men are created equal” nearly 250 years after that declaration was written someone like D’Angelo – or anyone – feels as if they’re far from home in a land not meant for them. How many generations have to live and die and make the same mistake repeatedly in this country before we get it right? Do people not realize that if we lift each other up and allow every single person to reach their fullest potential that we all benefit? Or, will we continue to treat an entire race of human beings like second class citizens in “a land meant for many men not my tone” and leave them longing for equality in a continent thousands of miles away? Where has that gotten us?
Again, that’s not what “Africa” is about, but that’s where my mind goes when I hear those lyrics. It’s appalling that someone with D’Angelo’s feels like he’s stuck in a place not meant for him. If it’s not meant for him, then who? I thought we were all supposed to be equal here.
I’ll now awkwardly transition from that back to the music. I always felt “Africa” sounded like a music box. This does not sound like the pop or R&B music that you’re used to. It’s stirring. Magical. Questlove provides the drumming and I did not realize until recently when I was researching something about Prince that “Africa” contains a sample of the drums in Prince’s “I Wonder U” from the Parade/Under The Cherry Moon soundtrack. Somehow in all my years of listening to both I never put those two things together. I swear I’m not intentionally trying to find ways to tie D’Angelo to Prince. When you have and artist like D’Angelo who was so heavily influence by Prince it just happens. I don’t have to search for long to find the connections.
I leave you today with another treat. Here’s a demo of “Africa” featuring D’Angelo on vocals and piano. No other instruments. No harmonies. Just D by himself singing flawlessly. The bridge is my favorite part of the studio version, but that key change is really striking on this demo. Both versions of the song are equally lovely. Enjoy. I’ll be back tomorrow with more.