Hours later, Nelson George asked D’Angelo about “Devil’s Pie” largely out of the blue: till then, they’d spent much of the talk discussing D’s early years in Richmond, VA, and music-nerd curiosities about mentors and milestones, like James Mtume coaching him through fits of writer’s block and his first time at Amateur Night at the Apollo. They hadn’t touched on any of his landmark singles, let alone an album cut from the Belly soundtrack I happened to have stuck in my head. “Was ‘Devil’s Pie’ written as a blues? What was the inspiration behind it?” George asked innocently, and the lighthearted talk turned slightly dark. “The spirit of the vocals is more like a chain gang,” D commented flatly. “Or, a field of slaves, where they were picking whatever bullshit massa had us picking.” The room was hushed, the soundman hit play, and the potent record filled the room.
“Devil’s Pie” is one of the few cuts on Voodoo that doesn’t feature the “drunken” style of loose, offbeat drums that Questlove so giddily described when he found his way on stage (twice) (somehow) during the talk. Instead, we get the meticulous, airtight kicks and snares of DJ Premier, in conversation with D’Angelo’s snaking bass guitar. The singer paints a dystopian vision of a capitalist world, where CEOs and secretaries are no better than drug dealers and prostitutes: everybody’s whoring out for a dish made of materialistic greed and lust. It’s part-Marxist theory, part-Baptist sermon, and the overarching theme is all is fair in the pursuit of a check—a particularly relevant one amidst the cartoonish excess of rap in 1998 and my upwardly-mobile millennial dreams in 2014. This is what made his explanation of the record so striking: “Devil’s Pie” is about money, but the chain-gang workers and bullshit-picking slaves he cites as its inspiration were not paid. In his mind, the monetary gain we put our pride aside to pursue is not only insignificant—it’s non-existent.
Hearing D’Angelo discuss his career during this conversation, it seemed as if all his successes were non-existent as well. Milestones were mumbled down into asides—on multi-platinum, Grammy award winning records: “Long story short, I won them over”; on sold-out cross country tours: “I had just got off the road and was pretty tired”; on the groundbreaking blend of funk, soul, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop he pioneered and perfected across two albums: “I was just trying to emulate my favorite producers, Premier and Marley Marl.” Even Quest had to check him on this tremendous understatement. He’s tip-toeing his way back into the public eye, playing shows and recording new music, but the D’Angelo we hear on stage this evening is still humble to a fault, willing to mute his own brilliant output to avoid the slices of pie this industry rewards it with: money, women, and fame, the same gifts/curses that brought him to his knees over a decade ago. Whether this is out of nobility or cowardice is unclear in his words, but plain as day in his lyrics: I myself, feel the high, of all that I despise.
D’Angelo deftly avoids the topic of his impending third album throughout the conversation, offering minor descriptions of sounds—“guitar-driven,” “forward-looking,” “funk, rock,” “confusing.” After George’s third attempt to sneak the question in, asking how modern technology has affected his creative process, D is the most animated we’ve seen him all night while recounting recent sessions with Sly Stone. “Sly’s been fuckin’ with the Auto-Tune shit,” he says with a laugh. “First I was like, ‘no! Sly! Why you using the Auto-Tune! But he’s got some shit. He does it how only Sly could do it. And he has mad joints.” There’s something romantic yet deflating about the relatively young singer (at just 40-years-old, he could’ve completely missed Jay Z in high school) most closely identifying with elders like Sly and Prince, who have shelled-up for decades, writing hundreds of songs that no one will hear. But as I myself wake up everyday and chase a prize I can only imagine but can’t exactly see, it isn’t so far fetched to imagine D blissfully recording and writing for the sake of it, almost in spite of the empty calories the music industry serves to its most acclaimed artists. When asked what he’d be doing if he didn’t make music, he hints at the “family business” (his father was a Pentecostal preacher), but clarifies, “I’ve always felt like the stage is my pulpit.” On “Devil’s Pie” he sings, The time has come for most of us to choose in which God we trust, but for D’Angelo, it doesn’t seem there was ever much choice at all.
Watch: D’Angelo’s 2014 Red Bull Music Academy Lecture