Distribution of Grief
Grief has been too big to understand, grief has been too small to share. Grieving for the world’s slow ecological destruction, grieving for the millions dead around the world from COVID-19, grieving for the collapse of sociality, grieving for the loss of social touch, grieving for our sweet cat, Zorro, whose small and aching death stretched out over a wretched month, only to arrive in a sudden afternoon before we could hold him as he died. Grieving for the grieving because
D’Angelo’s Slow Control
D’Angelo’s Voodoo is most certainly one of best albums of the twenty-first century, and I’m confident it will remain so. Perhaps best known for “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” and undoubtedly even more for the music video accompanying the abridged version of the song, Voodoo’s arc from “Playa Playa” to “Africa” is an erotic and diasporic journey through connection, each track a distinct wave of pleasure that sometimes coolly maintains its recitative quality, and sometimes crests with D’Angelo’s incredible falsetto. Wave after wave, the album sways (with) you and stays (with) you, moving (with) you.
The outsized influence of “Untitled” makes it the climax of the album, and while that may be true, I’ve always loved the extended ecstasy of the album’s final track, “Africa” (I have to control myself here, resisting the urge to write about the extended, desiring and desirous ecstasy of my favorite track, “One Mo’ Gin”). “Africa” is a soft piece, a steady decrescendo that rides the euphoric crest of “Untitled” until it twinkles out like the ocean in a shell, like shells on the shore catching the moonlight just right. It’s not precisely a means of winding down, but of finding a new, controlled plane through which to ride the high of the previous song. It’s the culmination of the album’s slow, rhythmic exploration of mutual pleasure.
“Africa” is a sonic caress after the abrupt conclusion of “Untitled.” It begins with a slight swishing of cymbals and D’Angelo’s dexterous fingers moving up and down the keyboard, a layered vocal track searching for just the right attunement, and a drum laying a new rhythm under it all: starting things back up again until the introductory searching finds the exact right spot for the percussion, keys, voice, and bass to groove without stopping for the next five and a half minutes. The song settles into its slow flow, and D’Angelo’s “woah, woah” moves down the register and takes us toward the first verse: “Africa is my descent / And here I’m far from home; / I dwell within a land that’s meant / Meant for many men not my tone.” D’Angelo’s controlled descent allows him to play lyrically with control in a different sense: control as a norming function, as that which establishes a presumed stability against which anything else can be measured (think “control group”). In the verse, tone is skin tone, tone is vibe, tone is timbre: D’Angelo wants to acknowledge he knows the control group, and with slow control he recalibrates the music as a space of considering his descent, of considering those who will descend from him (the song is dedicated to his son, the “seed,” “innocence,” “prince,” and “love” he refers to).
I’m not so interested in subjecting this song to my queer control (even if I let my uncontrolled queer feelings shape the first third of this essay), and so I’ll refrain from commenting on heteronormativity as a semantic control. I’ll note that in this song, D’Angelo says he will “beat this drum” as part of the “game of love” for his son. The song builds a sonic memorial for the named and nameless people from whom he has descended, and those who will descend from him: his loving imagination and music urge a reframing of what descent can mean, how kinship can offer altogether new ways of imagining relation in (and as) the world. Thus, perfectly under control, the song guides uncontrollable diasporic feelings toward a zone of pleasure and connection. As the closing track, “Africa” gestures to origins and new possibilities without separating them: origins can be felt as possibilities and hopes, and future possibilities can be origins. And it’s D’Angelo’s slow control that activates the song’s looping, loving vision of pasts, presents, and possibilities that move together in wonderful, concentric spheres of harmony.