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Pop: Just got to keep it real

D'Angelo's first album changed the way we think about soul. How can he live up to that?
It's not easy to tell if D'Angelo is simply high on talent and youthful confidence, or just acting plain stupid. No, I'm not referring to the incident in the VIP room at the MOBOs the night before our meeting, when he exchanged blows with a local ruffian and ended up being bottled across the back of the head. ("I guess he thought he could push me around because I'm short. But I got in the first punch, man.") It's the four- year gap between his first, pretty much revolutionary debut album, Brown Sugar, and Voodoo, his second, due in January, that's in question. How is he ever going to be able to live up to our soaring expectations?

Not even Marvin could do it: I Want You was so becalming three years after the tidal wave created by What's Going On and Let's Get It On. Perhaps only Stevie truly pulled it off, keeping us hanging for half an eon beyond Fulfillingness' First Finale before flooring everybody with Songs In The Key Of Life, one of the major musical achievements of his life. Does D'Angelo, 25, this son of a preacher from Richmond, Virginia, a guy with a track record of precisely one LP and a few soundtrack guest shots, seriously think he's in this league of legends? Already? His friend Lauryn Hill clearly thinks so. "When I first heard D'Angelo," she's reported as saying, "I was like, `Oh my God!'" I was just so happy because he set it down for real music, real soul." She's not alone. Artists such as Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Eric Benet, themselves among the accepted leaders of the neo-soul brigade - a musical movement that replays Seventies-style organic funk via a hip hop-aware Nineties filter - all readily agree they owe much of their extant successes to Michael D'Angelo Archer.

When Brown Sugar dropped in the summer of 1995, it was on to an R&B market that had bumped 'n' ground its way into creative oblivion. With one unexpected, gloriously crushing blow, our man reclaimed the territory for soulmen of a more subtle approach. His vocal stylings and lyrical metaphors recalled legends like Smokey Robinson, Al Green and Marvin Gaye. His arrangements required a return to high-class instrumentation as against programming and samples; funky, soulful sparsity instead of mechanical clutter. And it sold a 1.5 million in the US. He was the hero of all the black music fans left unmoved by rap, and now he has to improve on the stature.

In the studied swank of London's St Martin's Hotel, D'Angelo gives a good impression of being ready - at last - for the task. As usual, he's wearing something sleeveless and stretchy, so as to emphasise his honed, middle-weight boxer bumps and curves. Surprisingly, he looks almost hurt by my opening rejoinders about building expectations to unfulfillable levels. Then he recognises it as the truth.

"I don't look on it as being that long, but you gotta remember that the biggest thing for me was to focus on what I was doing and why I was doing it. When I wrote most of Brown Sugar I was living out in Virginia. I knew the songs were different to nearly everything else out there and that was their power. But when I got inside the business and I saw what it was about. Well, it doesn't seem like it centres around music too much. So my enthusiasm died. I had writer's block. I needed to approach the new album in a more spiritual way. Doing that takes time."

In all fairness, he had no control over the 1997 closure of the US arm of EMI Records, to whom he'd signed three years previously and then flourished under the enlightened A&R guidance of Gary Harris. An acrimonious split that same year with his manager, Kedar Massenburg - the powerful impresario who also discovered Erykah Badu, re-discovered Chico DeBarge and who now sits as CEO at a reviving Motown Records - didn't help either. Finally, he admits, the creative fire was reignited in 1998 by the birth of Michael, the son he had with former girlfriend and soul singer/songwriter, Angie Stone.

"Soon after he was born I wrote the first song for this album, `Send It On'. His coming just took me out of that pit. After that I just went into the studio and `Pow!', it all came out."

With a new US label (Virgin) - and manager (Dominique Trenier) hanging on his every utterance, D'Angelo has spent most of the past 18 months inside Jimi Hendrix's former studio Electric Lady in New York, working on Voodoo. As on Brown Sugar, once again he's turned to hip hop/soul producers such as Raphael Saadiq and The Ummah for organisational help, relying on the instrumental input of jazzers such as guitarist Charlie Hunter and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, as well as the rhythmic backbone of The Roots' Ahmir ?uestlove, to flesh out his original ideas. The result is an even rawer, funkier sound than before, built largely on layering of vocals and improvised grooves, with actual songwriting kept as simple as possible.

Its first single, the sexy "Left & Right", is indicative of what you can expect, merging Prince-like lyrical naughtiness ("Smack yo' ass/Pull yo' hair/Even kiss you way down there"] with the James Brown-style guitar 'n' bass of the track. Picture Gaye's "I Want You" meets The Godfather's Payback album, and you get the gist, though the three ballads, "Send It On", "One Mo' Gin" and "Untitled", owe much to the ethereal soul-squeaking of The Ohio Players. It's very good, but it's almost certainly not what Virgin [and EMI here] were expecting. Like the rest of us: they didn't get to hear it until about five minutes ago either.

"No, I kinda kept everyone away from the recording process," admits D'Angelo. "Only the musicians got to come into the studio, or people I vibed with. And I really didn't care what the record company thought. They did pull rank on me in the end and insisted I played it to them. But what they gonna do? Tell me to do it over?"

Now that is youthful confidence. But it's also, says D'Angelo, the only way he can continue his quest to raise the standard for real soul music in the face of the torrent of funk fakers. He wouldn't be talking about Puff Daddy by any chance?

"Well... I'd say that right now there is a new consciousness among black kids about the possibilities of instrumentation. And maybe I had something to do with that. People like Puffy and those other artists who rely on samples... I just don't see that sticking around much longer. Puffy says he's bringing back those old guys to the kids, but he knows he ain't doing it for that reason. That's just some alibi he cooked up. He knows half those kids he sells to will think he came up with what Maurice White [of Earth, Wind & Fire] first thought of. I say you gotta keep it real, man."

The single `Left & Right' is released on Monday. The album, `Voodoo', is out on 10 January