I’ve decided to take on a preposterous challenge. I will write about a D’Angelo song every day. Or, at least, most days. Or, at least, some days.
To be honest, I don’t know where I got the idea to do this. I’m just the kind of guy who comes up with cool ideas like this and then has the tenacity to see them through. You might think of me as a very stable genius or something.
Anyway, I pulled up my D’Angelo playlist today and hit shuffle; the first song that came up was “Spanish Joint.”
“Spanish Joint” falls about three quarters of the way into “Voodoo,” D’Angelo’s 2000 masterpiece. Maybe because of where it falls on the record, I originally thought it was a bit of a throw-away. And, in some sense, maybe it is. It is, perhaps above all else, a groove. If you listen closely you can hear D say at one point, “Go to the chorus again,” as though he’s directing the band in real time during the recording. That could be real or it could have been done for effect.
What I mean to say is, this song isn’t as carefully composed and arranged as many of the songs on “Voodoo.”
Now I’ll get to the point: composed or not, throw away or not, it’s my second favorite song on one of the best records of all time.
The essential character of the song is cool. A lesser artist might have attempted to make “Spanish Joint” something big and bombastic. Instead it comes off with an almost Miles Davis sheen. D’Angelo plays against the impulse to make things big and grandiose, one of his best tendencies. His voice is an instrument for the ages, but he mostly mumbles. His band is like a $300,000 car, but he drives it slow and dirty with the windows all fogged up. Turns out there’s a lot of contrarian in the Soulquarian. If not, D’Angelo would have been Usher or R. Kelly or whoever else rode soul music all the way to giant pop stardom. Thank God D’Angelo ain’t like that.
Back to that groove. A groove this good is about being a master of your instrument…but also a master of music, a master of feeling, a master of collaboration, a master of art. To badly paraphrase Prince, funk is about discipline and precision. It’s about pulling back rather than pushing forward and it’s about nuances you either understand or you don’t. You know who’s a really good musician? I don’t know…Joe Satriani. But a person like that could never play a groove like this. A groove like this is about transcending to some hidden, secret higher plane, like in a video game when you accidentally find yourself on the nirvana level.
I rarely pay much attention to anyone’s lyrics, and that especially goes for D. It’s partly because he just mumbles, but also because I love the sound of his voice so much that I don’t much care what the literal meaning of the words might be. That said, a line like “Gotta get out, gotta get out of here/I’m in the dark and the light looks sincere,” gets me every time. That’s my kind of lyric.
The other thing to know about the song is that it’s gotta be at least partly about weed. Or maybe it’s using weed as a metaphor? I don’t know, but the “joint” in the title seems to have a couple of meanings at least. Perhaps weed smoke contributes to the song’s cool factor, but I kind of doubt it. I actually hate the idea that the way to music like this is through drugs. That’s foolish. The way to music like this is prodigious talent, commitment, and obsession. Like Louis Armstrong (allegedly) said to someone who asked, “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
D’Angelo is the groove. It’s not a thing he makes up, not even a thing he plays. Just a thing he is.
“Spanish Joint.” It’s a good one.