I heard so much about this album that I was bound to be disappointed. I had read really positive reviews but also multiple friends of mine told me it was a great album and at least one of these people was not an R&B connoisseur. (Meaning I should take his opinion even more seriously.)
So it should be no surprise that on my first listen I really didn’t know what to do with it. I knew “Untitled” but I don’t think I knew another of the singles. And because I had crazy expectations I didn’t hear the masterpiece I was supposed to. (As an aside, does not subtitling a song called “Untitled” make the title incorrect? Asking for a friend.)
Something happened on the third listen, and I think I know what. On the third listen I started to “get” it in a way that I didn’t before, though this was more of an intellectual thing than a visceral thing so I apologize if it doesn’t appeal to anyone else.
I realized I was listening to this record through the lens of “I don’t like hip hop” rather than a different lens. I have listened to a lot of soul in my life and not quite as much R&B. But what happened to these genres in the 1970s and 1980s is a travesty for me. Melody, vocal acrobatics and slick production became the requirements of these genres. Sometimes rhythm mattered too, but mostly that was left to funk and dance music. And I realized while listening to this record – not my first neo soul record I should point out – that hip hop saved R&B from itself. Not all of it, obviously, but enough that this movement was pretty mainstream in the ’90s.
I realized all this while I noticed how much grittier this record is than your average ’80s or ’90s R&B record is. Not only is there a substantial jazz vibe on this record (in addition to the hip hop influence) but, despite the record’s nature as a bit of an augmented bedroom record, it sounds like the work of a live band even when it’s not. It has the rough edges of a live-in-the-studio recording.
Of course, it also helps that it’s catchy, even when D’Angelo’s vocals are mixed low enough that you don’t always know what he’s saying.