Brown Sugar & Neo-Soul
I recently joined the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) as a Content Contributor and my first post on the NMAAM's website is live.
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After what felt like an eternity since his critically acclaimed sophomore album Voodoo (2000), D’Angelo returned with his highly anticipated third album Black Messiah (2014). This year’s growing popularity of Black Messiah not only marks the fifteenth anniversary of D’Angelo’s landmark sophomore album, but also the twentieth anniversary of his debut album Brown Sugar (1995). Brown Sugar (1995) along with Me'Shell NdegéOcello’s Plantation Lullabies (1993), Joi’s The Pendulum Vibe (1994), and Dionne Farris’s Wild Seed – Wild Flower (1994) took popular Black music to the next level during the early to mid 1990s by mixing innovative musical scores with eclectic musical stylings and lyrical content that stretched beyond the seemingly endless R&B love song.
Released on July 3rd, 1995, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar would soon usher in the new genre neo-soul. And while D’Angelo has an ambivalent relationship with the generic term (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WD1oaBCmZWA), Brown Sugar’s artistic impact cannot be underestimated. While Kedar Massenburg, former Motown president and executive producer of both D’Angelo and Erykah Badu’s first forays into the music industry, is often credited with coining and creating the genre neo-soul through his discovery of D’Angelo and Badu, it truly is D’Angelo’s debut that aids in the shifting of music and the creation of a neo-soul culture. In a 2002 Billboard article on neo-soul, Massenburg commented on the genesis of the genre mentioning that, “I own the trademark to neo-soul . . . The term ‘new soul’ or ‘neo-soul’ originated when I came out with D’Angelo [before Massenburg joined Motown], who was reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway” (Mitchell, p. 30).
Coining a key term for a genre of new music as a sound business strategy is not something unique to neo-soul (Mitchell, 2002). In fact, “turn[ing] music into a commodity, is solved in generic terms. Genre is a way of defining music in its market or, alternatively, the market in its music” (Firth, 1998, p. 76). While neo-soul began as a marketing term, other genres that are now taken for granted, such as rock and roll, salsa, and R&B all have similar generic stories. These genres, like neo-soul, grew past their marketing tendencies and formed cultures around the definition of what it meant to be a part of the genre at a particular time.
Neo-soul has transformed from representing “new soul” to be sold to a mass market into holding deeper sonic and social meanings. David McPherson, former executive VP and A&R of Epic Records explains that at the heart of neo-soul, is music that is “conscious-driven…not just about shaking your booty or just talking about sex but about events going on around you or about relationships” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 36). Neo-soul, McPherson continues, “was created for artists whose music takes one back to ‘70s music” and while D’Angelo with Brown Sugar took listeners back to the 70s, he also updated the musical score with his own influences from the Native Tongues movement [within hip-hop culture] (whose principal members included A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Gang Starr and Main Source) (Mitchell, 2002, p. 36).
One can turn to the album’s first single and title track “Brown Sugar,” which D’Angelo co-wrote and co-produced with Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad as evidence of the innovative sonic fusion that D’Angelo’s album Brown Sugar offered overall.
Featuring D’Angelo’s now legendary falsetto, a thumping bass line, and brilliant organ work mixed with percussion and snare drums, the instrumentation of “Brown Sugar” was modern enough to fit on the airwaves with its hip-hop backbeat, but unique enough to stand out among some of 1995’s biggest R&B songs (TLC’s “Creep,” Brandy’s “Baby,” Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone,” Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and Whitney Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)”).
Lyrically, “Brown Sugar” riffs on the Black rhetorical tradition of signifying. Signifying is a verbal strategy that uses the ambiguity between the denotative and figurative usage of words in a way that conveys different messages to different audiences. While listeners may think they hear D’Angelo singing an ode to a lover in “Brown Sugar,” he actually sings about marijuana. D’Angelo equates the feelings of being high to love in a way that some listeners and fans often misinterpret.
As innovative as it is, “Brown Sugar” offers just a glimpse of the sonic transformations that D’Angelo puts to the test on the rest of his debut album. Take my personal favorite song from his set, “Lady,”which expands his sonic formula of fusing rap, funk, jazz, blues, gospel and soul music flawlessly.
“Lady” is not just sonically innovative, but is also lyrically radical as D’Angelo declares his claim on his lady and coos effortlessly, “I can tell they’re looking at us.” This unabashed proclamation of Black love was as radical in 1995 as it is today in 2015 because Black love is a radical commitment. As our nation continues to face the killing of Black men, women, and transsexuals, the explicit proclamation of and desire for Black love amidst the threat of physiological and bodily terror marks “Lady” in a lineage of empowering Black love songs both before neo-soul as well as after its intervention within our musical landscape. Let’s not forget India.Arie’s infectious “Brown Skin” from 2001’s Acoustic Soul and other neo-soul songs that trail in the lineage of “Lady” as well as the oeuvre that is Brown Sugar.
“Brown Skin” celebrates the beauty of Black lovemaking and continued the neo-soul legacy indebted to Brown Sugar. Therefore as we continue to trace the reaches of neo-soul and admire D’Angelo’s latest work Black Messiah, it is important to revisit his groundbreaking debut album Brown Sugar that laid the bedrock for his brilliant career as well as others who dared to go against the grain and embrace neo-soul.
Frith, S. (1998). Performing rites: On the value of popular music. Harvard University Press.
Mitchell, G. (2002). Black music month—Soul resurrection: What’s so new about neo-soul? Billboard, (39).
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