With his smooth, jazzy R&B hit single "Brown Sugar," singer D'Angelo has thrown the world of hip-hop a long-overdue curve- and earned a reputation as the new "son of soul." That's just fine with D'Angelo. "When you listen to Marvin Gaye, Prince or Curtis May-field, all you can do is just shake your head at how smooth their stuff was," says the corn-rowed 21-year-old. "I get my inspiration from listening to those guys and just grooving."
D'Angelo's own groove has seduced the fickle but hugely profitable hip-hop-generation market with the sound of live instruments and honest-to-goodness singing. The newly released album, also titled "Brown Sugar," is reminiscent of the late Donny Hathaway, or Teddy Pendergrass shortly after his Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes days. In contrast to the blandness of crooner Brian McKnight or the whiny Babyface ripoffs that have flooded the airwaves this past year, D'Angelo's aching falsetto accentuates the warm mesh of thoughtful lyrics and soothing melodies.
The roots of the singer's soulfulness can be traced to his childhood in Richmond, Va., where Michael D'Angelo Archer was reared on the gospel music at his minister father's Pentecostal church. As a teen, D'Angelo formed his own band, playing Smokey Robinson and Peabo Bryson tunes at family reunions and talent shows. Then he performed at Harlem's tough-love Apollo Theater Amateur Night contest, where he walked away with three consecutive wins and enough money to buy a keyboard. Back in Virginia, D'Angelo began shopping his singing and writing skills, landing a contract after a three-hour impromptu piano recital for a record exec. Soul-music fans, frustrated by the bump-and-grind phase of black music, are glad the man listened. "I am flattered people think I can get the music back to the way it was," says D'Angelo. "The music out there now is definitely kind of wacked." Not for long, if "Brown Sugar" continues to bubble.