While Voodoo is often considered D’Angelo’s magnum opus, Brown Sugar is not a record that should easily be forgotten. The R&B star’s debut LP melted the worlds of hip hop and soul in a way that hadn’t ever happened before, paving the way for that crossover to thrive until present day. It helped to open the doors for the rest of the Soulquarian’s mainstream success, and its influence can be felt in present day through the likes of Drake, John Legend, Frank Ocean, and more.
In the early 90s, a lesser known Michael D'Angelo Archer went to New York City and saw some success while performing at the Apollo Theatre’s amateur night. He won some money, which he used to purchase recording equipment to begin working on what would become the material for Brown Sugar. He signed with EMI in 1993, and the album came out in 1995, 20 years ago to the day.
Taking cues from Prince’s technique, D’Angelo decided that he wanted to write, produce, and perform on the record. One look at the liner notes and you’ll see the artist does in fact have production credits on each track along with writing credits on all but one, the cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’.” You’ll see that virtually each track was written by D’Angelo, arranged by him, and, in many cases, that he played all of the instruments on the track. He is a true virtuosic musician, one that led him to garnering the nickname “R&B Jesus” years later.
D’Angelo’s ability to play multiple instruments truly puts him in a category of his own. Michael Jackson didn’t make most of his best records without a cast of killer studio musicians. Neither did Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye. Pretty much any top dog in the R&B / soul category has had a ton of help in the studio, but D’Angelo is one of the truly rare examples of diverse talent that was able to conquer multiple, if not all, instruments on a given track. His musical capabilities allow Brown Sugar to play out as a true representation of his vision, which was one of the most progressive visions of the mid-90s.
The sound on Brown Sugar is a mix of the early 90s hip hop sound and the 80s R&B of Sade and Chaka Khan. D’Angelo has said that he didn’t want the album to have a certain sound, claiming, “I wanted it to sound raw, not real polished. Soul music is not limited, because there’s so much blues and gospel in it. I tried to stay true to that.” Along with Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest), Raphael Saadiq, and Bob Power, they achieved this previously unachieved counterpoint between classic soul, modern hip hop, and the future sound of R&B. Ali Shaheed described D’Angelo “a hip-hop head who grew up in the church,” which is probably a better description of his sound than any music critic can successfully ink.
It’s a good thing that this hip hop head grew up in the church, though, because without Brown Sugar, who knows where soul music would be. Classic albums from Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, and Frank Ocean would undoubtedly be different. There’s no way that the singing/rapping double threat of Drake would be the same. D’Angelo laid the foundation for the rap/R&B crossover with this record, and if you take a look at early 00s rap, where it was commonplace for rappers to stay on the verses and singers to take care of the hooks and choruses, it isn’t hard to feel his influence.
The album itself, when looked at objectively instead of dwelling on its impact, is still a super solid, near-perfect piece of art. Each song sits on its own two feet, but is better when heard in context of the entire album. The hip hop-ish “Brown Sugar” might be the most popular jam on the record, but virtually every track is on that level of greatness. “When We Get By” is as good of a catchy soul song as most anything Motown produced in their hay day. “We get by with love,” the track positively claims before some Miles Davis sounding trumpet takes you to the outro.
D’Angelo’s cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” has everything that makes a cover great: it pays homage to the original while providing a new sound to a well known classic. There’s super sexy cuts like “Brown Sugar” and “Shit Damn Motherfucker,” acid jazz sounds in “Alright” and “Smooth,” classic R&B direction in “When We Get By” and “Lady,” and gospel nods in “Higher.” It’s all viewed through the lens of a young D’Angelo, who honed the sounds of hip hop and had a clear-cut vision of excellence with the record.
Brown Sugar may turn 20 years old today, but the record is definitely a timeless one. If it came out today, it’s practically void of any outdated sounds. Each song still has as much impact today as it does back then, which is the mark of a truly great record. Go ahead and give it a spin, celebrate one of the great R&B icons of this generation, and embrace excellence.