DAR Music: D'Angelo's Brown Sugar

By @TrueGodImmortal

1. Brown Sugar 
2. Alright 
3. Jonz In My Bonz
4. Me and Those Dreamin Eyes Of Mine
5. Shit, Damn, Motherfucker
6. Smooth 
7. Cruisin'
8. When We Get By
9. Lady
10. Higher

We've covered both Voodoo and Black Messiah in solo articles previously, and we've definitely talked about D'Angelo and his music a few times, but we've never really taken the time to discuss his classic debut "Brown Sugar" and the effect it had on the Neo-Soul genre, as well as music in general. A little over 21 years ago, the man known as Michael Archer would release a classic project that would open up the floodgates for him in the industry. The story for D'Angelo started at a young age, as he began playing piano (self taught), and in 1992, he won the Apollo Theater competition three weeks in a row. After securing a deal with EMI, he would experience some success by co-writing and co-producing the song by Black Men United (a collection of the more popular 90's R&B stars and some legends) titled "U Will Know", featured on the soundtrack to the movie Jason's Lyric. As his status began rising, he set out to work on his debut, and inspired by Prince, he decided to handle a majority of the production himself.

This album in reality was years in the making, and had a honest hip hop influence on it, with D'Angelo citing A Tribe Called Quest as a huge influence in his music as well. Drawing from his roots in Gospel and Jazz, D'Angelo presented a style that meshed all the elements of both together with a hip hop sensibility and a traditional soul vibe, making him stand out instantly. His voice was mostly kept in the falsetto tone, something that I believed helped him immensely within his music. Considering that he did a lot of the production on his own here, the album had a bit of a bare bones feel, versus a plethora of complex instrumentation (which would be the case for the rest of his career honestly), and it worked. One might notice such a free and honest spin within the songwriting of D'Angelo and there's no bigger sign of that than the title track.

The title track, an ode to a beautiful strain of marijuana, or rather just an ode to marijuana in general, is honestly such a dope song that it's been looked at and seen as a love song. The term "brown sugar" became the basis for a lot of things after this, though the origin of the term in the particular song came from weed. However, with the lyricism in the song, it's understandable why some would want to use it to describe their woman and their love. Make no mistake about it, while the song can be perceived as about a lovely brown skinned lady, D'Angelo makes it clear how his love for weed came about from the first few lines:

"Let me tell you 'bout this girl
Maybe I shouldn't/
I met her in Philly and her name was Brown Sugar/
See, we be making love constantly/
That's why my eyes are a shade... blood burgundy/

"The way that we kiss is unlike any other way
That I be kissin' when I'm kissin'/ What I'm missin'/
Won't you listen/"

While the central theme of the title track was weed, the overall theme of the album revolves around love, relationships, and everything that's encompassed within that. On the next track "Alright", he crafts a smooth tale over some very jazzy production, and I like to think that this song is quite underrated. He talks directly to the woman in his life, reminding her that just because they disagree or argue, that doesn't mean things are going badly. They'll be alright, is what he tells her, and in many ways, this is the most comforting song on the album, as he is quite straightforward in his lyricism here. He alludes to the fact that although they might not see eye to eye all the time, they'll continue to try and that everything will be alright. It's more of a realistic look into a relationship than what we've seen previously in R&B, and that's something I respect about D'Angelo's music. His music is as realistic as it comes, as he speaks from what has to be experience in love versus creating a world or a utopia to entice women. It's that raw material in his music that made both "Brown Sugar" and "Alright" extremely enjoyable songs to start off with.

I love the sounds and rhythm of "Jonz In My Bonz", and I think it's one of the more slept on songs in his career. It's funky and a bit soulful, with a very simplistic premise and hook, which works in this regard. The almost inaudible delivery of D'Angelo's lyrics here add to the feel, identifying the rhythm and the vibe versus the actual structure of a song. However, we go from a slight upbeat number in "Jonz" to a darker, conceptual track on the interestingly titled "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker". The song is probably the darkest song in the entire career of D'Angelo. He creates a narrative of essentially walking in on his best friend and wife sleeping together and what ensues is his reaction to the whole debacle. The first verse and the hook paint the picture perfectly:

"Why are you sleepin' with my woman
Why are you sleepin' with my woman
This comes as a total surprise/
I just can't believe my eyes/
My best friend and my wife/
Shit, damn, motherfucker
Shit, damn, motherfucker
Shit, damn, motherfucker
Motherfucker, motherfucker, oh yeah babe..."

The first verse sets the tone, and the second verse moves more into the reasoning that he does in his head as he tries to make sense of it all. He inquires as to what's going on, how long it's been going on, but then goes ballistic and goes to grab his gun. Upon grabbing his gun, he reacts as quickly as he can, and fatally handles the situation, apparently murdering both his wife and best friend before being arrested and stuffed in handcuffs. Now, for those who know the album and have been paying attention, you might have wondered why I went straight from "Jonz In My Bonz" to "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" and skipped the epic "Me and Those Dreamin Eyes Of Mine", right? I'd like to think that the precursor to "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" being this track was strategic. Considering the entire album is cohesive and goes through a ton of emotions for love, perhaps "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" is merely a figment of the imagination for D'Angelo. It's as if he had a bad dream or a moment where he was hallucinating, which could also be a byproduct of him enjoying so much of the "brown sugar" he spoke lovingly about in the first song of the album. Far fetched? Perhaps, but with the feel and concept of "Me and Those Dreamin Eyes Of Mine", it's certainly a possibility.

Speaking of "Me And Those Dreamin Eyes Of Mine", the song is the beautiful complement to the rest of the album, as the vibe on it is funky jazzy soul. The lyrics paint a picture of infatuation, obsession, and it is something that could very well be the bridge to my theory earlier that "Shit, Damn, Motherfucker" is just an extension of his dreaming eyes and mind, rather than reality. Regardless, the song itself is absolutely amazing and one of the smoothest tracks in his entire career. The lounge jazz feel of it, along with the simplistic drums create a joyous sound, and as he kicks off the song with his first verse, it's clear how smitten he is with this object of his affection.

"When I first saw you baby, I wanted to die/
Me and those dreaming eyes of mine, started to cry/
Then I'd dream, wishing my fantasy, would soon become a reality.....
Cause every time I see you baby, all I do is sigh... cause you're the most precious thing/
That my dreaming eyes... has ever seen/
So I'll continue to dream/
Me and those dreaming eyes of mine/"

The uplifting of women in his lyrics is one of the reasons that D'Angelo has been so successful. Another thing that's helped the success is his songwriting ability and cool reserve. It shines through on the fittingly titled "Smooth", which is a great bridge right to his classic cover of the Smokey Robinson gem "Cruisin". Now, don't get me wrong... the original version, or rather Smokey's version of "Cruisin" is quite lovely and an all time classic, but I'd be lying if I didn't say that D'Angelo's version was slightly better. It's all in the delivery of his vocals and the way he structured it. The lyrics aren't anything new obviously, but when he sings it in his cadence, it almost sounds new. Just the sound of "let the music take your mind... just release and you will find" with the somewhat dragging falsetto is enough to relax you after a long day. Imagine coasting on a cruise to the caribbean, and this song plays as you clear the open waters... peaceful and serene.

Continuing in the jazz momentum is the slick "When We Get By", which could be seen as the sequel to "Alright". It's almost as if another problem arose in the relationship and this was the response to it. Or maybe, there were some struggles that seemed insurmountable and this was the song to strength them. Whatever the case, the song is a great way to showcase your love for someone during the toughest times and though the verses themselves don't really paint a bigger picture, it merely confirms and solidified what the hook brought forth. Check the simple yet effective hook:

"When we get by, we'll make it by, when we get by with love/
I look in your eyes, when I look in your eyes...
I know what your thinking of/"

The falsetto is at its lowest on the verses and it just works well here. I'd like to briefly touch on the final song of the album "Higher". Combining what sounds like all of his influences into one song, D'Angelo talks candidly and sings his soul about God and all things spiritual. When an artist has a strong belief in God, it can manifest in the music very strongly and this is a prime example of that. It's almost a gospel jazzy prayer in some ways, and while I don't really agree with ending the album with it, I think I understand the need to end on a spiritual note. However, the song before the end of the album is where I'd have ended it all. After showcasing shades of Marvin and his paranoia along with Jimi's aggression ("Shit, Damn, Motherfucker), Al Green and his soulful sensibility ("Alright"), the holy vibe of Sam Cooke ("Higher), and a ton of Prince influence (title track, "Me and Those Dreamin Eyes Of Mine"), D'Angelo partners up with Raphael Saadiq to create what is definitely a top 5 song in his catalog, "Lady".

The beat is ripe with that classic Saadiq sound, the drums banging with that familiar knock, and the guitars strumming gently to add a beautiful riff. The piano comes in slowly and from the first line, it was obvious this was not your average D'Angelo song. It was something special. Check the opening lyrics:

"Don't think I don't see them looking at ya/
All of them wishing they could have ya/
And as a matter of fact, a bunch of them are itching for you to scratch'em/
I'm tired of hiding what we feel/
I'm trying to get with the real/"

It's an honest declaration of love from D'Angelo that keeps that realistic love vibe and paints his picture perfectly. He has a woman that he's in love with and he's tired of hiding what he feels for her... sounds simple right? Sure, but the song gets much more intricate than that in the later verses, as he makes it known that the world seems to be jealous of the love he's found with his woman. The ending verse/bridge speaks to this fact that was alluded to it in first two lines of the song:

"I can tell they're looking at us....
I pick you up everyday from your job/
And every guy in the parking lot wants to rob me of my girl...
And my heart and soul/
And everybody wants to treat me so cold/"

It's a tough position to be in. Having a woman that you care about and love, but everyone is going for her or wants what you have. I call this a tough position because it's 100% relatable to every man in a relationship. It's a familiar feeling, but somehow through it all, D'Angelo manages to really drive his emotion and feelings home to let his woman know that there's no greater gift than her. With the complex nature of this album, I'd have loved the album to end on "Lady", but although it doesn't, that's where I'll end my retrospective on this album.

Is Brown Sugar a classic? Certainly. Is it the best D'Angelo album? That's debatable. Regardless, this project is certainly one of the best albums of the 90's in the R&B genre and otherwise.



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