With his long-awaited second album, Voodoo (Virgin), D’Angelo has tossed a huge challenge to modern R & B’s hollow come-ons, stale programmed beats, flashy electronic effects, and vocal grandstanding. By working with largely synthetic music most of his contemporaries plant their cliched histrionics in AstroTurf, but D’Angelo’s singing is inextricably rooted in earthy, sultry, bottom-heavy grooves that he and his band–which includes Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Charlie Hunter, and former Tony Toni Tone bassist Raphael Saadiq–painstakingly cultivated over a couple years. While he lets loose a few vocal fireworks–his roof-raising falsetto on “Send It On,” for instance–by and large D’Angelo favors subtle emotional gradations. His voice is deep down in the mix and more often than not it comes in waves of carefully overdubbed harmonies with pinpoint-precise accents. He’s touring with an 11-piece band that includes Thompson and Hargrove, and according to reviews of his recent New York shows they’re all feeling it–stretching the songs out, improvising, and experimenting with the arrangements. Like D’Angelo and the Roots, opener Mos Def is trying to revivify hip-hop by introducing live instruments: he plays bass and a variety of percussion on his debut solo album, Black on Both Sides (Rawkus). But his real accomplishment as a rapper is his refusal to explain away repellent behavior as the natural end result of ghetto life. He doesn’t paint an unrealistically pretty picture, but he dares to posit peace, love, and understanding as antidotes to urban ills: “We are hip-hop / Me, you, everybody, we are hip-hop / So next time you ask yourself where hip-hop is goin’ / Ask yourself…where am I goin’? How am I doin’?” But he doesn’t let the Man off the hook either, ranting about cultural theft in “Rock N Roll” (“Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul / Little Richard is rock ‘n’ roll / You may dig on the Rolling Stones / But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own”) and the pervasiveness of racial profiling in “Mr. Nigga” (“They stay on nigga patrol on American roads / And when you travel abroad they got world nigga laws”). And he delivers his smart lyrics with an innately musical, rhythmically dynamic flow. Friday and Saturday, 7:30 PM, Arie Crown Theater, McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Dr.; 312-791-6190 or 312-559-1212.

Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Thierry LeGoues.