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Universal Harmony: BIRTH OF A SON – D’Angelo’s “Africa,” 2000

August 7, 2011 2 comments

"Africa," the closing song of D'Angelo's "Voodoo" album celebrates the birth of a son as well as the affirmation of heritage.

Music is the vernacular that can describe all human conditions. There are emotions that every person may come to feel in their lives, despite the barriers of language and environment. There are experiences that nobody is immune from, like…the birth of a son.  Whether an unexpected surprise or the product of meticulous planning, when a man becomes a father, it’s an affirmation of life’s meaning, something not easily described in words, but D’Angelo managed to accomplish just that, and more, with “Africa.”

Five years removed from the his lauded 1995 debut album Brown Sugar, Michael “D’Angelo” Archer released Voodoo, a singular work of sweat-soaked funk, sex-stained sentiments and unabashed fearlessness.  After 12 songs of pheromone excreting soul that would cause a nun to throw her undergarments, the LP closes with a composition of raw purity.

“Africa” was inspired by the arrival of D’Angelo’s first born man-child.  D not only documented his fresh emotions, but also saw an opportunity to be socially reflective.  Black men in America are always accused of abandoning their offspring to escape responsibility, so D decided to remind us of our rich, moral sense of tradition that has been taken, distilled from our consciousness, due in part from being swept away from the motherland. “Africa” uses lyrical imagery that rivals the heartfelt poetry of Langston Hughes, mentioning the separation of our heritage from the start: “Africa is my descent, and here, I’m far from home; I dwell within a land that’s meant for many men not my tone.”  The gentle building of the cymbals harkens the rustling of leaves from warm breezes deep in the Congo.  “Questlove” Thompson’s drums throughout are primal and moving; the rhythm ravishingly compliments D’Angelo’s fragile, saintly Fender Rhodes chords.  The performances are incredibly primitive yet virtuous, with D’Angelo’s vocal reaching a vulnerable climax once he proclaims to his boy:

“Every since the day you came, my whole world began to change,

I knew then to dedicate my life for your own;

Every day, I see you grow, and remember what you already know,

I receive the love that radiates from your glow.”

The misty hypnosis of D’Angelo background vocal overdubs personifies the “glow” he speaks of.   His song describes the unparalleled connection any father has with his first-born, which derives from a source that goes far beyond our frail, mortal capacity of comprehension; a source that is equally from many places, but really from one.  The blessings of God may be scattered all about the planet, but the foundation of those blessings comes from Heaven.  And if all men were created in the Lord’s image, then Africa is the Genesis of the conception, gestation and delivery of all things that come from above.

Voodoo will be remembered mostly for its erotic, Grammy winning single “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” but “Africa” will go down as a portrait of two imperfect beings sharing lifes only perfect moment; forever bound…by universal harmony.

Notes From The Author:  When I was a younger man, I would listen to this gorgeous song in my headphones, and as I sang along with D’Angelo’s angelic baritone and falsetto, I’d find myself being driven to tears.  At the time, I found it inconceivable that I would ever become a father, for a number of reasons, which made this display of emotion curious and confusing.  There was no way I could possibly relate to what D is talking about, so what is it that is moving me so?  I decided to write this experience down, thinking I may need it for something later.  Well, now that I, indeed, have a son of my own, I revisited not only the song, but my words as well.  And as I began to re-write and complete this piece, it occurred to me: “It was no accident that tears flowed from my eyes.  God knew all along.  HE knew before it happened.”  This article taught me a great life lesson: We all have plans, but God has a path.

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Categories: Universal Harmony

Universal Harmony: DEATH OF A SPOUSE – Dru Hill’s “5 Steps,” 1997

December 5, 2010 1 comment

"5 Steps" from Dru Hill's debut album remains a heavily requested song to this date, due largely to it's mature themes of death, regret and change.

Music is the vernacular that can describe all human conditions. There are emotions that every person may come to feel in their lives, despite the barriers of language and environment. There’re experiences that nobody is immune from, like…death of a spouse. When a bride and groom say those vows, “until death do us part,” each tend to think that death is far away and they’ll be white-haired and wrinkled before they have to deal with that. Of all the uncertainties that life entails, death is the only certain thing we all have to look forward to, and losing your life companion unexpectedly is something that none of us can prepared for. There’s an immeasurable amount of pain that forever changes the living.  A situation personified by Dru Hill’s “5 Steps.”

Baltimore vocal group Dru Hill were up-and-comers in the realm of contemporary R&B, popularized by groups like Jodeci and Silk. On their 1996 eponymous debut CD, Sisqo, Jazz, Nokio and Woody had notorious songwriters like Daryl Simmons and Keith Sweat contribute, but the songs the quartet penned and produced themselves proved as comparable as the output of their big named contributors; no more evident than on the CD’s fifth single.

On an album featuring provocative production and lyrical content, (“Tell Me,” “In My Bed,”) “5 Steps” was a torch song of the tallest order, fusing gospel undertones to a secular song. It communicates how a spouse’s death could push our lives pass a spiritual point of no return. In the first lyric, sung by Nokio, the man pensively braces himself for the hit: “I don’t know how much long you’re going to be here…,” We all do what we can to reduce the likelihood of losing someone without them knowing how we feel about them.

Jazz’s verse follows the bereaved as he goes through his day to day still feeling the surge of loss. His vocal , seamlessly moving back and forth from falsetto to natural tenor, demonstrates the peaks and valleys of one’s soul brought on by this tragedy. These lyrics show just shattered we can become from the constant reminders of death:

“And what was reality once – a love true in form – is now added pain for a man scorn,
forced to wear the memories of pain around an empty heart.”

During the bridge, Sisqo extracts the ineptitude of continuing life in a hopeful way, despite life going on around him: “I sit in silence and begin to think as laughter echoes through the air; I can’t get you off mind, but a whole new love I could never bare…” Not only can we not imagine loving anyone as much as our dearly departed, but we couldn’t fathom the idea of going  through it again, especially since regret drapes over us like the shade from a skyscraper. As the chorus expresses, the premature passing of a spouse conjures the thought that all the potential of love and passion we had ahead of us was ultimately unfulfilled while still on Earth:

“We were five steps from eternity;
We were four steps past love;
And three wishes from touching the heavens above.”

“5 Steps” was the closing song on the album, appropriate considering how emotionally draining it is. While not one of their bigger chart hits, it’s sustained classic status, thanks to it’s message:  Having the love of your life die is something we all have to expect, whether it’s a day or 50 years from now.  To resist the pain is futile, but to let it permanently diminish our quality of life is a sin.  The sooner we realize it’s a blessing to be loved at all, the simpler we’ll be able to cope…in universal harmony.

Categories: Universal Harmony

Universal Harmony: UNREQUITED LOVE; Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin'” – 1974

October 23, 2010 4 comments

The compelling melancholy of songs like "Creepin'" helped earn Stevie Wonder's Fulfillingness' First Finale win Album of the Year at the 1975 Grammy Awards.

Music is the vernacular that can describe all human conditions. There are emotions that every person may come to feel in their lives, despite the barriers of language and environment. There’re experiences that nobody is immune from, like… UNREQUITED LOVE. The plight of those who yearn for another and don’t receive the same from their object of affection is agonizing and not easily met with empathy. When you’re in love with someone and you’re the only one who knows it, all you have is your imagination, which tends to run wild – ranging from fantastical to masochistic. Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” is an appropriate expression of such a feeling.

When “Creepin’” was recorded in 1974, Stevie Wonder had emerged from a near fatal car crash that put him face to face with his cryptic premonitions of an early demise. The mood of its album, Fulfillness’ First Finale, is not as joyous as Signed, Sealed, Delivered or as incendiary as Innervisions, but contains dragging melodies, ominous instrumentation and deliberately fatigued singing. “Creepin’” embodied Stevie’s state of mind of that time: Happy to be alive, but drained from a physically and spiritually rigorous episode. Such can be the state of mind of someone in love with another and unsure of the chance of getting reciprocity.

With each slush of the hi-hat on every upbeat during the chorus, the pendulum swings back and forth before your eyes, hastening your descent in a longing trance. The hypnotic cipher of ARP synthesizer chords incites a state of indifferent consciousness: being able to vividly imagine oneself in the arms of your desired lover while also getting swept in a hazy, swaying undercurrent of uncertainty. The harmonica solo sounds like lonely weeping, humanized by the twain of its long notes. Stevie’s despondent vocal delivery of his lyrics evokes the melancholy that comes with unrequited love:

“When I sleep at night, baby/I feel those moments of ecstasy/
When you sleep at night, baby/I wonder do I creep into your dreams/
Or could it be I sleep alone in my fantasy?”

The presence of Minnie Riperton’s lush, sensuous soprano serenely adjacent to Stevie’s voice brings a layer of hopefulness to an otherwise hopeless happening. In the end, we all pray for the best, even in the face of fear and disappointment. It’s all but guaranteed that we’ll each fall in love someday, but it’s not guaranteed that someone will fall in love with us. And while that’s a scary realization, it’s something that we all share…in universal harmony.

Categories: Universal Harmony