Recently, on the Wonderful! podcast, Griffin McElroy talked about his love of D'Angelo's seminal hit, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)", and the sad fallout from the release of the single and music video. It has been 18 years since the single dropped, and I think it's still incredibly important to reflect on the song's lasting impact and what it means to leave a legacy.
I will not shy away from this opinion: D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" is the perfect R&B neo-soul song, from recording, execution, to its music video, it sets a standard of what I demand from recording artists. The song is both sexually explicit and tender. It is both quiet and intense. The music video is in your face and subtle.
The song itself has sparse instrumentation, which serves mainly to compliment D'Angelo's expression of love. It slowly builds on a simple-but-dragging drum pattern, a rhodes electric piano to call out the chords, and an electric guitar to accentuate the melody established in the hook. What truly stands out are the harmonies that call out the phrase "how does it feel", which serves as a double-entendre: How does it feel to fall in love? How does it feel when we're making love? At the climax of the recording, the song has built up to D'Angelo's wailing ad-libs over a the harmonic chorus and complete instrumentation--and it simply cuts off as if the tape had run out. It feels like the most appropriate way to end this song--a fade out would have felt out of place and one final chord would have felt incongruous to how simple the song is structured. There's no finality to this song, to the love expressed in the song, the sudden end leaves the listener to reflect on what the song has just expressed.
The music video is iconic. It features a sweaty and naked D'Angelo against a black background. The camera zooms in and out to further suggest D'Angelo's nakedness and vulnerability, and pans around him to accentuate his nudity. Despite all of this, it's incredibly tasteful and it visually speaks to the sparseness of the song. The video because insanely popular on MTV and VH1 due to the quality of the song and the simple sensuality of the music video--and that's where the problems begin.
D'Angelo had become a sex symbol overnight. While he had established himself one of the music industry's most talented musicians with his debut album Brown Sugar, and the 2000 follow-up masterpiece Voodoo, his concerts had suddenly become packed with people shouting at him to take his clothes off as he had done in the "Untitled" music video.
While D'Angelo's legacy involves creating the perfect love song and perfect music video, it's a legacy that he couldn't escape. In the years following the release of the song, D'Angelo tried writing a follow-up album to Voodoo, but simply couldn't. Trying to escape the problems that this perfect song created, he turned to alcohol. His next album wouldn't be released for another 14, almost 15 years, with the timely and poignant Black Messiah.
As a creative, what do we take away from this? It seems oafish to say that perfection should be avoided, for the cost may be an unintended legacy, or that one's true legacy could be overshadowed by social tropes such as the sexualization of black male bodies. Perfection should endure in spite of that--and yet, I would never fault D'Angelo for taking his time to follow-up on his own works and to process the discomfort with becoming an unintentional sex symbol.
In fact, I think that's the biggest take-away: regardless of what pinnacles you create or don't create, it's up to you as the creator to control what it means to create, what it means to make an impact on others, and what you do after that. R&B fans were thirsty for new D'Angelo material between 2000 and 2014, but generally, I don't think that they were incredibly fervent or unreasonable in their demands. I'd like to think that fans of D'Angelo's music were pretty understanding--his legacy lived on in his influence and his contemporaries, like Raphael Saadiq (who produced and co-wrote "Untitled"), Maxwell, and Bilal.
Looking at the facts on the ground, D'Angelo has three albums which should be regarded as neo-soul masterpieces. I don't want to know what a forced album between Voodoo and Black Messiah would have sounded like. I imagine that a bad album created while he battled his demons could have tarnished D'Angelo's track-record of high quality recordings.
It's good to never stop chasing perfection, to do always do your best, and recognize when you're incapable of creating your best work or work that makes you feel uncomfortable. Sometimes what your work means to you as a creator may be something different to what your work means to your audience--and that's fine. That dissonance can be great, and sometimes it can be crippling.
For the times that your legacy overshadows your intentions, the tools for your craft will be there when you're ready to use them. You don't have to use them immediately, but they're there when you're ready.