Park West, October 22

D’Angelo strolled onto the Park West stage, sat behind a piano, and lowered his cornrowed head. His hair, baggy black shirt, and “Yo Chicago, wahssup!” said pure 90s B-boy, a scion of hip-hop and its beat-loving culture. But when he fingered the piano keys and swaggered into the Ohio Players’ “Sweet Sticky Thang” with a falsetto moan, it was clear that his heart’s in soul music. At 21, D’Angelo is the 70s soul messenger for his generation, even though he’s barely old enough to remember anything before 1980.

Recalling Al Green in his heyday, D’Angelo wound his voice around the lyrics like taffy, silkily scatting while the crowd rushed the dance floor. Fans similarly responded to “Shit, Damn, Motherfucker,” his reinterpretation of the salacious 70s. A belligerent tale of betrayal and murder, the song throws rolling rhythms and Prince-like growling together with wrenching, threatening lyrics. “Why are you sleeping with my woman? / Why are you sleeping with my woman? / This comes as a total surprise / I just can’t believe my eyes / My best friend and my wife / Why the both of u’s buck-balled naked? / I tell ya what’s on my mind / I’m ’bout to get my nine and kill both y’all behind.” It could easily be a gansta-rap song, but the drowsily slow tempo, melancholy mood, and the tragic ending make D’Angelo’s treatment different. Far from the glory of the typical gangsta song, the closing verse makes it clear that the perpetrator pays for violence: “Why the both of u’s bleeding so much? / Why the both of u’s bleeding so much? / Why the both of u’s bleeding so much? / Why am I wearin’ handcuffs?”

By combining 70s sounds with 90s attitude, D’Angelo’s exposing young people to the same music that inspired contemporary artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Ice Cube, and Mary J. Blige. He lists Prince and Marvin Gaye as his chief influences, and has filled Brown Sugar, his debut album, with heavy 70s influences. His mid-tempo groove “Alright” sounds like it could have been on a Blaxploitation sound track, with its bouncing rhythms and psychedelic flow. “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine” recalls the slow funk of Rufus and Chaka Khan, and “When We Get By” sounds like a jazzy tribute to Stevie Wonder’s best ballads.

In concert D’Angelo cites 70s material, but he always repackages the songs to keep them fresh. After offering a much funkier version of Smokey Robinson’s classic “Cruisin’,” he reeled into Curtis Mayfield’s “Give Me Your Love.” The audience squealed in appreciation as he swirled the melody over his piano keys and sang the lyrics with a nonchalant certainty. He was as comfortable with this music as he was with his own. He returned for an encore with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” harmoniously improving on Maurice White’s vocals, and the crowd sang along.

A sure sign that the 70s aren’t dead came on the first strains of D’Angelo’s hit “Brown Sugar.” Written in the tradition of Rick James’s “Mary Jane,” the tune praises marijuana under the guise of a love song. Slurring his voice over the lyric “Brown sugar babe / I get high off your love / I don’t know how to behave,” he takes on the demeanor of a blunt-loving B-boy. “See we be makin’ love constantly / That’s why my eyes are a shade blood burgundy,” he sings with a wavering, lazy tone.

To make the old-school/new-jack connection clearer, local MC Common Sense joined D’Angelo to rap to this song “87 style.” It was a tribute to the old and new, and D’Angelo’s nostalgic music was leading the way back to the future.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen A. Peters.