There’s an emotion, somewhat specific to New Yorkers, that can be described as a mixture of pride and annoyance. It’s when you extract yourself from a busy early-Summer weekday to see a matinee showing of an obscure Art House director’s latest offering, only to find a line stretching down the block to Sarah D. Roosevelt Park. It can strike at any time: at a small gallery putting on a retrospective of an artist you’ve always liked; at a restaurant in the bowels of Chinatown that just started serving lunch, but quotes a two hour wait; when you’re trying to find a newly released second novel from a promising young author and every book store, including the dwindling branches of Barnes & Noble, is completely sold out.
On one hand, it’s incredible and overwhelming to live in a place where a niche taste can be shared by tens of thousands of people. At any given moment, no matter how remote the setting, you can meet a kindred spirit that shares your strange little obsessions. On the other hand–really? If you live here long enough, it can completely skew your sense of value.
How does one gauge the fame of someone like D’Angelo? I’ve loved him for over half my life. He’s the guy whose first album I purchased in my introductory membership to the Columbia House Record Club. The guy who was responsible for the “Cold World” hook. The guy who, with all due respect to Lady, set off the Belly soundtrack. The Marvin Gaye to Lauryn Hill’s Tammi on “Nothing Really Matters.” And yes, the guy from the “Untitled” video.
Voodoo almost went double platinum a decade and a half ago. It had five big singles. But where do you logically fit it into the culture? It’s a sprawling post-modern weirdo R&B masterpiece. Its centerpiece is a languid, seven-minute booty call with intentionally trite lyrics, that plays more like a slow drunken undress than actual sex. It won a fucking Grammy. Compare that to today’s R&B landscape where guys like Trey Songz now rule with bridges and hooks built by pop Frankensteins in studio laboratories, synthesized like modern junk food, stuffed with musical salt, sugar and fat to maximize addictive listening. The culture chose R. Kelly over ?uestlove. So where does that leave D’Angelo?
Black Messiah’s an album of frustration, protest and melancholic beauty, released abruptly after a fourteen year sabbatical, in response to a Staten Island Grand Juries’ horrific decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo. It’s a beautiful loop of masterfully organized confusion and, in the truest, rockist sense of the word, an album. Which means you won’t see any one song from it on a Billboard singles chart or hear it on the radio. Nor its parsed lyrics inserted into a meme on Instagram.
We still haven’t figured out how to track torrents and illegal downloads, but in its opening week, Black Messiah sold just over 100,000 copies. That’s only an eighth of Beyoncé’s numbers for her surprise self-titled album, released at the end of 2013, and still very much alive on the radio, Instagram, the Grammys and theatrical adaptations of soft-core “mom porn.” Currently, Black Messiah sits at number 56 on the Billboard top 200 chart. Beyoncé’s at 33. By these numbers, at least, his album hasn’t made a seismic cultural footprint.
So how much is a ticket to see D’Angelo at the Apollo in early February worth? How hard should the ticket be to procure? They sold out within seconds online, then moved like frozen orange juice futures on Stubhub’s black market. So I ended up paying an obscene amount that I’m embarrassed to share with strangers. I thought of it as a once in a lifetime experience–A hermetic genius emerges with a masterpiece before he heads to Europe to tour for several months. He’s playing a lone domestic show at the Apollo, a historic venue I’d never made it to. Maybe this sounds like something you’d say no to, given the price tag. I said yes.
It was hard not to put an immense amount of pressure on the event. The concert needs to be a mythic, life changing experience that critics will write books and shoot documentaries about twenty years from now, I thought. These are dangerous expectations to bring to anything in life.
I got off the D train at the 125th street stop, thinking, “Would I be stuck with another group of assholes who wanted to be at the concert for bragging rights? That cared more about the selfie they could take and tag at the Apollo more then show itself?” Around the time a (tenth) concert-goer asked me if the snaking line I was in was actually for drinks, I realized this was going to be a different breed of strange. He was white and bearded, a cuddly, older brother Hipster-type wearing a screen-pressed sweatshirt of a come-hither still from the “Untitled” video, likely plucked off the rack at Beacon’s. Of course he’s breaking one of the oldest concert commandments: “Though shall not wear an artist’s shirt to said artist’s show.” Looking around, I realized this guy was more rule than exception.
There was a sweaty-palmed excitement in the air, and the individuals who made up the crowd were very much the authentic, for-the-love-of-the-moment and experience type that I wanted them to be. But they were all trying so hard. And then I realized the one thing we all had in common: We were all old and, for the most part, white. Hipsters wearing five-to-ten year old styles. Paid a babysitter and splurged on tickets to have a night out, wearing the same thing worn to a Wilco show at Irving Plaza in 2008.
I thought, guiltily, perhaps it’s an issue of economics. Not many 17 year olds have the capital necessary to get into a show of this caliber, even paying face. Then it occurred to me those 17 year olds were three when Voodoo was released. Has D’Angelo, impossibly, morphed into crit bait? Well, consider these points:
He won Pazz and Jop in the eleven days between when Black Messiah was released and the ballots were due.
The guy who released Loser the year before Brown Sugar came out, and Odelay the year after, won a Grammy for Album of the Year the night after the concert.
This guy was essentially a mid-90s equivalent of a coffee shop Mario before making an abrupt left turn in his career, transforming himself into an echo chamber of meticulously curated and iron-tower approved reference. He’s an avatar of the aging Hipster’s idea of dangerous black cool.
He isn’t Martin Page or late Sting, Phil Collins or Elton John. But this is what Adult Contemporary music is in 2015. Because what is an adult in New York in 2015? We’re a city of children, teenagers, very old people. And in the middle there’s a herd of Ponce de León’s desperate-to-be confused as teenagers, arguing for the intellectual merits of Taylor Swift, thirty-somethings. Because if you’re not in, you’re out.
I’m spending a lot of time watching the crowd, bile rising between glances at the stage, and thinking about all of this having just spent $15 on a half-pour of jack and coke. And like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry suddenly realizes the last thing he wants to do is eat cereal three times a day with Janeane Garofalo for the rest of his life, sometimes I think I should be living in a city with people who are completely different from me. Because my whole day can be fucked up by a cab driver who pumps his breaks at green lights; because I have very strong opinions about how the Knicks can turn this thing around; because I generally hate myself and everyone like me. Surely people in New Orleans aren’t like this.
From the balcony, D’Angelo looked like a bowling ball in a onesie. He seems clean, happy and at peace with his career, life and himself, and there is an infectious energy he brings to singing, to playing the guitar and the piano. He now has a band that performs at James Brown-levels of synced proficiency, with three albums of material to play.
As the show builds and he moves through Black Messiah out of sequence, pulling the perfect tracks from his twenty-year career out of the bag at the perfect moments, you lose your perspective of the crowd and disdain for the crowd. You join the crowd, unable to believe he’s actually playing the actual song “Brown Sugar.” And it’s hard to not appreciate this or not tap into the genuine euphoric electricity in the balcony. It makes you think about how New York, the millions of people who live in New York but weren’t born here, who are all outcasts and nerds in the small towns up-and-down the east coast and Midwest and South, wherever they were from, who didn’t fit in because of their weird proclivities for the same shit you liked. We all grew up dreaming of a giant city of peers to talk authors and directors and musicians with. We came to New York looking for community. And maybe at one point it was a lie, but enough of us bought into it to make it true.
So maybe the whole process of purchasing the tickets and attending the show and being around a group of people who wanted to see D’Angelo at the Apollo is annoying and somewhat frustrating and even a little sad, but the experience was actually amazing and actually worth every penny. There’s this moment, late in the show, in fact, the very last song at the end of the -nth encore, where you’re emotionally drained and drunk and sated, where the lights are down and the band is trailing off, leaving the stage one by one until it’s just several hundred people and D’Angelo. In the dark. And he doesn’t even really have to sing anymore, because for these last few minutes we’ve all had the privilege of not being ourselves. Skin raised and spines chilled, and in harmony we ask the same question of one another and ourselves over and over again: How does it feel?