I was a bit harsh yesterday when I referred to “Unshaken” as 49th place on my list of 49 D’Angelo songs. Let’s rewind…
In late-2018 Rockstar Games released the video game Red Dead Redemption 2, an open-world game based on the old west. Rumor began to spread that one of the songs in the video game was performed by D’Angelo. This seemed nearly impossible to me. At that point we hadn’t heard a thing from D’Angelo for nearly four years. His first post-Black Messiah project couldn’t possibly be music for a video game…could it? It didn’t take long before the rumors were confirmed. D’Angelo had indeed co-written and performed a song for RDR2. How could this be possible? I was actually pissed. I wait years for new D’Angelo and this is what we get? Something from a freaking video game?!?
For what it’s worth, the entire video game world was buzzing over Red Dead Redemption 2. I was listening to multiple podcasts at the time about topics completely unrelated to video games and yet somehow conversation took a detour so the hosts could rave about this new video game. Everyone was playing RDR2, it seemed, except for me. I used to consider myself an avid gamer, but parenthood comes with some sacrifices. By the time my kids were toddlers I was happy if I could sneak in a game or two of Madden every week. Eventually that dwindled down to nothing until my kids became interested and I started reliving my gamer life vicariously through them. Red Dead Redemption 2 is rated MA for mature. My kids are not mature. My son – who was barely 10 at the time – was already playing some games I considered questionable and I didn’t need to introduce him to a western full of violence and F-bombs. Like so many games in the past 15 years I decided to avoid RDR2. My video gaming since fatherhood has consisted of only family friendly Nintendo fare – Mario, Zelda, and Animal Crossing to be exact. By avoiding RDR2 I missed any context around this new D’Angelo song.
Another phenomenon that I hadn’t considered when I dismissed “Unshaken” as a “video game song” is that video game music has gotten damn good over the years. Even back in the 8-bit day some games were using original music to tell a story with the limited options they had available. The Legend of Zelda and Metroid stand out in my mind as having memorable soundtracks from day one. Fast forward three decades and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has an amazing soundtrack that helps make it the greatest video game I’ve ever played. My son’s favorite music right now comes from the Zelda & Chill albums, which transforms Zelda’s most recognizable music into chill hop. When he’s in the car with me and asks if we can play Zelda & Chill my answer is always “hell yes.” I dig those albums. Even the K.K. Slider music in Animal Crossing is catchy and original. I’m sure someone with more video game knowledge than I could go more in-depth on this topic, but my point is that dismissing D’Angelo’s song as “video game music” was a mistake on my part. Video games have become equal parts art and entertainment.
Still…we’re talking about D’Angelo here. D’Angelo. Disciple of Prince and Stevie. Soul singer and multi-hyphenate extraordinaire. He doesn’t just lend his talents to anything. He’s above video games. His music should be in the Smithsonian, not Red Dead Redemption 2. Right? Wrong. Turns out D is a bit of a gamer and asked Rockstar Games if he could test RDR2 before its release. After he spent some time with the game he was approached about contributing to the RDR2 Soundtrack. He took the project seriously. Next thing I knew “Unshaken” was added to my Apple Music library in January of 2019. After four years of waiting I had a new song by D’Angelo and it was from a video game. I listened with a healthy dose of skepticism and dismissed the song almost immediately as an aberration. RDR2 takes place in the old west and “Unshaken” fits the motif. Country & western music isn’t my thing. This shouldn’t count as a D’Angelo song. I hardly gave it a chance.
Then yesterday I wrote that it was the worst D’Angelo song and as soon as I posted that statement I thought, “I better give this song a good, long listen and be ready to back up that declaration.” Almost immediately after I pressed play I regretted what I’d said. This song is dope as hell. What was I hearing two years ago to make me brush it aside so quickly? This isn’t some dumbass “let me check you for ticks” or “she thinks my tractor is sexy” country. This is soulful, badass Johnny Cash country. It’s D’Angelo in a way we’ve never heard him before. Unlike much of D’s more recent music, his voice isn’t buried in the mix. Instead it’s front and center. He’s singing a foreboding, deep tenor that’s not hidden behind his usual harmony. When he does bring out the harmonies they’re majestic and haunting, especially when combined with the quiet percussion and acoustic guitar. He’s singing about bravery in the face of chaos. I’m actually getting chills.
Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the personnel involved in “Unshaken” are not the usual Soulquarians/Vanguard members I’m accustomed to. The song was co-written by D’Angelo, Daniel Lanois, and Rocco DeLuca. D’Angelo sang and played Rhodes with Lanois on on guitar. Jazz artist Brian Blade played drums backed up on percussion by Daryl Johnson and Cyril Neville of The Meters. I thought for sure that was at least going to be Isaiah Sharkey on guitar. The Vanguard must’ve called in sick for the video game song.
I learned something new today: Don’t dismiss a song just because it came from an unfamiliar sourc. So what if it was from a video game? I should’ve learned that when I wasn’t buying Prince’s NPG Music Club albums back in the late-90s/early-2000s because I thought it was idiotic to buy music that could only be downloaded. I missed a lot of good music because of it. I dismissed this song because it came from a video game and spent nearly two years ignoring it when I could been enjoying it instead. I am thrilled to say that I was wrong. My bad.
I’m going to stop writing about “Unshaken” now and listen to it on repeat for a while. I’m also going to download Red Dead Redemption 2 on my son’s Xbox One because this song is making me think if the music is this good, the game must be amazing. Tomorrow we’ll close out the week with yet another mid-90s cover of a soul classic. Until then, enjoy “Unshaken” and don’t wait two years to listen to it again. I’m going downstairs to play video games.