Everybody that knows anything about D’Angelo, 1990s R&B, or neo-soul knows “Brown Sugar.” It’s the song that sparked a movement in R&B/soul music, or at the very least is one of the songs. Erykah Badu’s “On & On” might have equal claim. It obviously takes more than one single to carry an entire album, though. I wrote a few weeks ago about my experience hearing Brown Sugar – the song and the album – for the first time in the middle of a music store in Fox River Mall back in 1995. I left a small, important piece out of that story.
When I heard “Brown Sugar” it hit me like a bolt of lightning. I picked up a copy of the CD and was prepared to walk up to the counter and pay the absurd price that mall music stores charged for CDs at the time. Probably $15. I could’ve gotten it at Best Buy or The Exclusive Company for a few dollars less. We’re talking about 1995 here. I was a broke ass 19-year-old and was in no position to just blow $15 on a whim because I heard a song that I liked. The hip hop/R&B landscape was littered with one-hit wonders at that point and I wasn’t about to to throw a bunch of money at the next Skee-Lo who happened to be huge at that moment. In hindsight comparing D’Angelo to Skee-Lo is absurd. Let’s just say I was wary. I needed confirmation that this was the rare CD worth my money based on a brief part of one song.
I pressed the FWD button on the CD player and “Alright” began. “Alright” was composed, written, arranged, and performed by D’Angelo. Produced by D’Angelo and the legendary Bob Power. “Alright” actually hit me harder than “Brown Sugar” during that first listen. The spacey intro. The beat and the bass line. It’s funky and ethereal…and that’s before we even hear D’Angelo’s vocals. D’s lead vocals are obviously amazing, but he also happens to be the best backup singer I’ve ever heard. His harmonies weave in and out of the song and complement his lead vocals to stunning effect on this track. 90 seconds into “Alright” I would’ve paid a hell of a lot more than $15 to get my hands on the Brown Sugar CD.
This has always been one of my favorite D’Angelo tracks, but the older I get and the more I learn about music and life, the thing that floors me about this song more than anything is the lyrical content. He sings about love and relationships on this track at a maturity level far beyond a 21-year-old. Just a piece of the lyrics:
And if we don’t see eye to eye
At least we tried
We been through to much
To let all the little things get in the middle of…
So let us ease back, relax
‘Cause everything’s gonna be alright
I know people far older than D’Angelo was at this time without that kind of perspective.
I mentioned this above, but it’s worth repeating: D’Angelo did everything on this track. What 21-year-old is capable of this combination of musicality and songwriting? D’Angelo. Prince. End of list?
Sadly, for whatever reason, “Alright” was not one of the songs he played frequently on tour. I did come across a video of D and Questlove performing it during their brief 2013 Brothers In Arms Tour. D’s ability to play the bass line with his left hand, the melody with his right, and sing along to it blows me away. He sounds like an entire band by himself.
If you’ll allow me a moment of self-indulgence, I have a fun tangent. I was lucky enough to witness one of the Brothers In Arms shows at First Avenue in Minneapolis. After D and Questlove took us on a journey through the amazing music they felt like playing for a couple hours they invited Twin Cities legends Eric Leeds, Stokley Williams, and St. Paul Peterson to the stage to join them for “Mutiny” by The Family. The Family was one of Prince’s many side projects in the 1980s and many consider them to be the best. Peterson and Leeds were both members of The Family. The reason I posted this video is because I just found it tonight while looking for any footage of D’Angelo playing “Alright” live and I happen to be visible right in the middle of the crowd several times. You can see me grinning ear to ear with stars in my eyes while I clap and sing along on multiple occasions. At least I now have proof that I got to stand within feet of the stage while D, Questlove, Stokley, Leeds, and St. Paul Peterson absolutely crushed a cover of “Mutiny.” Check it out:
Man, what a night. I didn’t expect to go so far off-topic on this one, but that video brought back great memories. Needless to say, “Alright” is one of my favorite D’Angelo songs. Wildly underrated. It’s included in at least half a dozen different “chill” playlists in my Apple Music library. In fact, last year during COVID quarantine I found myself spending a lot of evenings just spinning records in the dark while sipping a drink. I was listening to “Alright” when I decided I’d make a playlist to accompany me should I stray from my beloved turntable. I found myself sitting by a fire in the backyard with my bluetooth speaker last year shuffling my Stay In And Chill (Vocal) playlist. Click the link and let me know what you think. I also have a Stay In And Chill (Instrumental) playlist that’s all laid back jazz. Coltrane, Miles, Clifford Brown, Dexter Gordon, Grant Green, etc. I’ll share that one another time. Probably my favorite of all of the playlists in my Apple Music library.
Tomorrow’s track is not on the chill playlist. It’s also technically not a D’Angelo track, but he plays a big part in it. It’s one of my favorite tracks featuring D’Angelo. More on that tomorrow. Enjoy your Tuesday, everyone.