If D’Angelo’s life were viewed as one long series of dramatic episodes, you might say he was last seen being thrown from his Hummer, which was doing somersaults through a Powhatan County cornfield. He was then plucked from the dirt by a medevac helicopter, deposited at the VCU E.R., and released days later with broken ribs and bruises. That was last September. Roll credits, cue the theme song.
It has been six years since D’Angelo released his album Voodoo, and legions of fans remain at his beck and call, awaiting his next move. Does anyone remember singer/songwriter John Mayer’s open letter to D’Angelo in Esquire, begging him to record again? We’re all nuts for something, I guess. I once stalked J.D. Salinger all the way to Cornish, N.H., determined just to set eyes on the guy (and I did). R&B really ain’t my thing, but I’m a sucker for covering a world-class disappearing act.
So imagine my interest as the next episode unfolds: D’Angelo, the platinum-selling recording artist dubbed by some critics as the “godfather of neo-soul” and perhaps Richmond’s most famous offspring, is suddenly MIA. Calls go unreturned. His house looks abandoned. From his last mug shot, it’s clear he’s gained a spectacular amount of weight. His family’s not talking. He seems to have vanished into thin air.
This was the state of things anyway, the day I tried to get D’Angelo on the phone. I had only a vague idea of his troubles with the law, and no idea what he was doing professionally. I’d simply been assigned to ask a few questions. How was he getting along after the accident? Was he still in touch with former girlfriend and musical collaborator Angie Stone, with whom he’d reportedly split after she gave birth to his son, Michael Jr., in 1999? For that matter, was he still on good terms with the mother of his daughter, Imani? And what was at the root of his problems — the wreck, the personal troubles that seemed to be weighing on his aspirations? Rumor had spread he was down in Nashville assembling new material. Word was it sounded fantastic.
By all accounts D’Angelo (born Michael Eugene Archer, 1974, in Richmond) is a private guy, introspective, tough, dedicated to his art above all else. He’s a perfectionist, and also a piddler. It took five years to record his sophomore album, Voodoo, which was apparently worth the wait: The album debuted at No. 1, nabbed two Grammies and wound up on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Not bad for a preacher’s son who forged his vocal talent singing in church and high school choirs.
That said, he’s the last guy who’d slap down tracks just to pick up a few bucks. “Man, you know me,” he said a few years back, in an online interview with his trusted friend and drummer, Questlove. “I can’t do anything that’s musically forced. I can’t force a situation.” D’Angelo seemed to be waiting for inspiration. I just wanted to know if it had finally come.
I was poking around, vicariously prying into his life while I waited to meet him in person. Using Web pages and newspaper clippings, the downhill slide he’d been on came fully into focus. Since 1997, he’d accumulated a rap sheet that included charges for assault, drug possession and a litany of traffic offenses that run from speeding to DUI. If not for this stuff, D’Angelo might have otherwise been allowed to ponder his next move in private. But his life and his career seem to be coming apart, very publicly, at the seams.
Rumors of D’Angelo’s forthcoming album, and his work in a Nashville studio, came to light, coincidentally, as the bottom fell out. Just one week
before his Sept. 19, 2005, Hummer accident, he was seen high-fiving his way out of a Chesterfield courthouse after a judge had handed down a three-year suspended jail sentence (and no fine to speak of) for cocaine possession. The singer had been pulled over for speeding in January 2005 and arrested on DUI and drug possession charges. His lawyer, Ned Mikula, helped that decision along by begging leniency for the singer, insisting he was bolting straight to Nashville to begin work on a follow-up to Voodoo.
Of course, we know what happened next. Proof that D’Angelo never made it to Music City USA was lying in a downtown hospital bed.
Further speculation about the recording was reiterated in an e-mail, sent by his former tour manager Alan Leeds, to the press after the accident. “He needs several weeks home,” Leeds wrote, “and then, once doctors give the high sign, he goes to Nashville to resume working on his next album.” Both men seemed to be using the Nashville spin as damage control. Six months later, Mikula refuses to talk. In a late-April phone call, he would not speak on the record.
D’Angelo’s entertainment lawyer and advisor, L. Londell McMillan, phoned at his office in New York, was also blowing me off. This was the same guy who issued a statement after the wreck that read, “[D’Angelo] is anxious to finish the recording of his soul masterpiece that the world has patiently awaited.” He added, strangely, that a similar wipeout had done wonders for Kanye West. “He’s running around the house,” McMillan said of D’Angelo to the Times-Dispatch in late September 2005. “He’s chomping at the bit to get in the studio.”
So there you had it: A “soul masterpiece” on the horizon that no one wanted to discuss. By spring, speculation about the new stuff was running rampant. Guys like Anthony Hamilton, his friend and former backup singer, discussed the new record as a point of fact while in Richmond in early April, though he added he hadn’t heard it himself. Even the online encyclopedia Wikipedia — not necessarily a model of consistency — carries rumor of the new album, calling it by the relatively prosaic working title James River.
I called Virgin Records, D’Angelo’s label, to ask about its release date. What I found was shocking. After being referred to several publicists (none of whom returned calls), I finally spoke with one receptionist who told me bluntly, “D’Angelo was dropped last summer.” She said it was part
Dropped? Confused, I turned to Google, which led to Billboard Magazine, which published news last July that the R&B star had been signed to J Records, the home of Alicia Keys and American Idol graduates Fantasia and Ruben Studdard. I discovered that Leeds, had affirmed the rumor at the end of September. But calls to the label confirmed the opposite: A contact there, Sara Weinstein Denison, said plainly that J Records had no agreement with D’Angelo whatsoever.
A real mystery was unfolding, made more compelling by the fact that many of D’Angelo’s local friends and relatives could not be reached at all. Lou Barber, his friend and one-time choreographer, wasn’t talking; his father, known for being skittish about discussing his famous son, was “on vacation” when Richmond magazine visited his church office. His cousin Latrice Taylor, located through a service rep at a local car dealership and who promised to pass a note to D’Angelo through her aunt, got nowhere; and D’Angelo’s cousin Marlon — half of his ex-band, the Dirty Soulz, and one of D’Angelo’s first recording partners — could not be found for comment.
Nearly eight months had passed since the accident. If D’Angelo really was in Nashville by now, one could assume he was doing what he did best: getting back to basics, cutting tracks on spec which he’d then shop to labels. This was the way he’d done it in the early days, which led to his groundbreaking first album Brown Sugar. I checked the local press for sightings: a quote, a session, a scuffle in a bar. But nothing turned up. Nor was there mention of his presence at any Nashville studios — not necessarily surprising in a fickle town with fistfuls of big names and famous places to record them.
A promising lead turned up in the form of the Broad Street recording studio Da Spot, where Wayne “Smalls” Breedlove, an artist development guy on the local R&B scene, agreed to talk. His voice darkened when I asked about D’Angelo. “What’s this about?” he said. After some convincing, Breedlove promised to “hook me up” — he was going to call D’Angelo and see about putting us in touch. Three days later, after hearing nothing, I phoned him again. Breedlove never called me back.
With every call, the questions got more complicated: Why was a major star with a long-anticipated record in the works so bent on avoiding the media? And why were his friends and family so tight-lipped? I remembered a bit of conversation with Breedlove, when I mentioned the new album in conversation. “Oh,” he said, sounding shocked. “You heard it?” I see now that he wasn’t challenging how I got my hands on proprietary material so much as questioning the very existence of the thing.
In one regard, the silence made sense if you looked at it through a different prism. Sgt. Kevin Barrick, a Virginia State Police spokesman, shed a little light on the matter. “[D’Angelo] has never been served,” he said, of an arrest warrant issued on Oct. 11, 2005, to charge D’Angelo with driving on a suspended license during his September accident. The reason? “We haven’t been able to find him.” As Barrick tells it, the state cops need evidence of a suspect’s location in order to deliver a summons. If D’Angelo turned up talking to the local press, that might clearly place him in Richmond, which might land him in the clink.
Still, one had to wonder: How does the king of neo-soul simply vanish into thin air? Getting an answer was going to take some fieldwork.
I landed D’Angelo’s address, and then hopped in the car. Thirty minutes later I found myself near the Powhatan County line, in a newish, upper-middle-class neighborhood of transitional homes.
It was a balmy spring day, made sweeter by the whiff of freshly cut grass. I passed a lawn-maintenance crew slinging mulch against a foundation, then found the house, not far from the main drag. I drifted by, eyeing the property. There was no activity, no cars in the driveway.
I wondered what to do next. The trail was leading nowhere. I circled back, chewed on what little I’d found, then went home to do more investigating. I checked around with the neighbors.
“He’s usually always there,” one of them told me. The neighbor added they’d raised friendly fists at one another just a few evenings back.
I was floored. “But I didn’t see any cars,” I said, wondering aloud about the Nashville rumors.
“I don’t think he has a car,” the neighbor told me, citing the scuttlebutt about D’Angelo’s traffic snafus. It was mostly speculation, guesswork, small talk. And then it emerged that he liked to drink Bud Light.
So with this scant and frivolous information, I headed back toward his house. I stopped along the way at a Kroger for a 12-pack. What the hell? It was a peace offering of sorts, something to break the ice if we surprised each other at the front door. I headed back to his place, parked at the edge of the grass, and with a thousand questions and the bag of brewskis under my arm, I headed up the driveway.
Approaching the house, the place seemed forsaken. The grass was over-grown; thick blades had invaded the pea gravel driveway. Along the stairs, the railing had separated from the banister. But then, a closer look: On the front stoop, there were footprints in the pollen. I rang the bell. No one answered.
Still, the evidence, though circum-stantial, was everywhere: his lack of transportation, sightings from the neighbors, the possibility that his recuperation may have been taking longer than expected.
I peeked through a window by the door: a pair of shoes, a castoff magazine, a hoard of compact discs splayed across the tile floor. It was strange, like a ghost was present here. A ghost that liked listening to music.
Though he may have been just on the other side of those walls, I knew then we weren’t going to meet. It made me think of Salinger, and how he’d withdrawn from the world, disgusted and just sick of it all. But there was no comparison here.
D’Angelo was hiding out, more or less a fugitive from the now-failing promise of his career and his pending arrest. And as I headed back to my car, I couldn’t help but think that sooner or later he will have to face the music.
Editor’s Note: On May 19, a debt collector posted a notice of foreclosure for Michael E. Archer’s Chesterfield County home. The singer’s house was scheduled to be sold at auction on May 25.