D’Angelo took the stage at Essence Music Festival over the weekend for his highly anticipated return to the spotlight. After his critically acclaimed shows overseas and his two-song stint at the 2012 BET Awards, fans looked to his headlining Friday concert at Essence as a comeback of sorts. And many left disappointed.
I was at New Orleans’ famed Superdome this weekend. I booked a last-minute flight to the city, and even waited an hour outside the arena after a ticket snafu, just to see D’Angelo perform 12 years after he disappeared from the music industry.
More than a decade earlier, when D’Angelo came on the scene at a mere 21 years of age, his soulful tenor and syrupy-sweet falsetto captivated a generation of women, me among them. It didn’t hurt that he had full lips, chiseled features, and a set of washboard abs unlike any I had ever seen.
His mainstream success seemed imminent. He had the sex appeal, mystery, and street edge that black women’s fantasies are made of. But it wasn’t until I put on my headphones and got lost in his music, with its infectious melodies and brilliant instrumentation, that I realized his true genius. Yeah, he is fooine, but first and foremost, he is an artist.
That distinction was lost on the audience at this year’s Essence Music Festival. Despite an hour-long performance in which D’Angelo crooned, played the piano, and danced (yes, danced!) ’til he was covered in sweat, the crowd was glaringly unresponsive. There were valid critiques that D’Angelo didn’t perform most of his classics. (“Untitled (How Does It Feel)” and “Lady” came later in his set.) But for the most part, folks were in an uproar about his appearance: his teeth, his “unkempt” hair, and his stomach. A woman behind me even remarked that he had a “pouch” and needed a “Clarisonic” cleansing tool for his skin.
In his first interview in more than a decade with GQ, D’Angelo lamented how his image as a sex symbol came to overshadow his music. He spoke of painful, embarrassing moments when he would take the stage with his band in tow and hear cries of “Take it off” from the audience. He was being regarded and treated as a “piece of meat,” and in many ways, it was dehumanizing to him. To be sure, D’Angelo’s legendary “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video set the precedent by portraying him as a sex symbol. But in our celebration of skin, abs, and muscles, we forgot about the music.
Sadly, that pattern was perpetuated Friday night. The man poured out his heart onstage. His voice was flawless. His band, which included The Time’s Jesse Johnson on guitar, sounded better than ever. But the question on everyone’s minds was: “Where are his abs?”
If D’Angelo stepped away from the mic at any point during the show, and tugged at his black motorcycle vest to reveal a toned stomach underneath, the audience may have erupted in applause. But late Friday night, as he walked offstage after his first extended concert in the U.S. in 12 years, the Superdome fell silent, with his once-celebrated career hanging in the balance.