D'Angelo Is Alive and (Not So) Well and Living in Richmond

by Andrew Bast

How does it feel? Parsing the rumors about the return of onetime R&B sensation D'Angelo, it feels anguished. And sad. And even a little pathetic. You most likely remember D'Angelo, whose real name is Michael Eugene Archer, from the video that made him famous. It was for "Untitled (How Does it Feel)," from his 2000 Grammy-winning release, Voodoo, and there is really only one thing to remember: D'Angelo naked, ripped to the core, the camera lingering on his torso. And so a musical heartthrob was born.

No matter how spectacular Voodoo proved to be—and it was spectacular, even better than his debut release, Brown Sugar, and it elevated D'Angelo from neo-soul pioneer to the wildly popular genre's commanding steward—it was the video for "United" that foisted him into superstardom. Overnight, he faced a massive, fawning female audience, many of whom were after his muscles more than his musicianship. This was meant to be the beginning of something great. But almost a decade later, it looks as though the video might have marked more of an end than a beginning.

We've waited all this time for D'Angelo's follow-up act, and … nothing. That doesn't mean we haven't heard about him from time to time. In 2005, the singer pleaded no contest to a felony cocaine-possession charge and then a week later suffered a nasty car wreck—his Hummer ran off the road and flipped, and he was taken to the hospital in a helicopter. In 2006, Gary Harris, the record executive who first signed him, carted him off to rehab. In 2008, Virgin Records released a greatest-hits album. He's popped up as a guest musician here and there, but really, D'Angelo the groundbreaking musician has been all but absent from the scene.

In January, talk surfaced about a new album titled James River, presumably named after the river of the same name that runs through D'Angelo's hometown of Richmond, Va. Potential collaborators included Prince, John Mayer, Cee-Lo Green, and Raphael Saadiq. A tour and an album—in the U.S. and Europe—were announced for the summer, only to be scratched. To be fair, D'Angelo has a proven record of working slowly. Brown Sugar came out in 1995, and it took five years—including delays—to finally finish Voodoo. Maybe James River is only one more musical milestone in the making. Or maybe it's much ado about nothing.

Here is the most recent update: according to Lindsay Guion, D'Angelo's manager, no album will be released this summer. No collaborators have been confirmed. The artist is living in Richmond. He's recording there and in New York City, and he will deliver the tracks to his record company by September. Guion says they have just signed a contract for a U.S. tour that will begin around the holidays. So, the bottom line seems to be that nobody's going to hear anything from D'Angelo at least well into the fall. That includes NEWSWEEK. After repeated requests for an interview, D'Angelo's rep finally offered to pass on a list of questions by e-mail with assurances that D'Angelo would actually provide the answers. After a day, however, his management backtracked to say the singer was unavailable until the album was finished.

Still, the sexy video haunts. After D'Angelo's arrest, a distressing mug shot circulated, showing how far he had strayed from his nude-Adonis days. Glassy eyes and thick jowls had replaced tight cornrows and roped muscles. Those close to him have explained how sex-symbol status raked his psyche in the intervening years. At concerts, female fans screamed for his clothes to come off. "The catcalls had an undeniable effect on D'Angelo," is how David Peisner describes it in a profile in Spin magazine. "The objectification appeared to do lasting damage." Or maybe he's done the damage to himself.