Many thanks to a friend of mine for giving me this solo, acoustic version of “Africa.” Comparing this version to the studio version helps illustrate a lot interesting things about both D’Angelo and his seminal album,Voodoo.
First of all, hearing D’Angelo alone at his piano helps reaffirm how great of a musician he really is. “Africa” has always been one of my favorite songs of his, and I was always curious about how much of it he actually wrote and how much came through in the studio. This version shows that D’Angelo pretty much had an exact idea of how he wanted the song to be presented. Everything that appears on the recording is here on the acoustic version, from the piano arpeggios in the beginning, to the descending hook the precedes each verse, to the call-and-response-type bridge. The composition was finished, but now it had to be given a nice ‘neo-soul’ gloss, and therein lies the problem.
I’m not saying that the final take of “Africa’ is bad by any means; as I said before, It has always been one of my favorites. But comparing the acoustic piano version to the studio version shows that a lot of the original nuances and beauty are lost in attempting to commercialize and radio-prepare the song. First of all, listen to the choice of keyboards for the final take. Oh how I long for the musical limitations of the 70’s again. But do I? Neo-soul artists are exactly what they say they are. They are a modern-day resurgence of the classic soul composers and singers of the late 60’s and 70’s. But in those days, moving from the piano to the studio wasn’t as much of a drastic change. A fender Rhodes, an electric bass, some guitars, and some clever drum mic placements were the only the things that changed. But today, the choices studios present to artists are endless. From the mic choices to the keyboard choices to the endless post-production options, the amount of possibilities presented to artists make some things a lot easier and others infinitely harder. So, what is that keyboard sound they settled on? And why did they choose it? I don’t really know. It’s certainly not a Rhodes, and it bears very little resemblance to a piano. But does it work? Certainly.
However other production decisions didn’t go down as well. One that stands out throughout the entire album, and something that had crossed my mind before, is the use of D’angelo’s main instrument: his voice. If someone who had never heard D’Angelo before picked up Voodoo, I doubt one of the first things they would say about him is that he is a great singer. That seems a strange thing to say about a successful neo-soul artist, but it’s not because D’angelo isn’t a good singer, it’s just about the way the producers decided to utilize his voice on this album. He is almost always singing in falsetto, and when he isn’t, his voice is often layered, at least 3 times. This choice wasn’t necessarily a bad one, it was just a theme they were going for. But listening to D’angelo sing alone at the piano shows that he has a much greater range than is audible on the recording, and it makes me wish that they had left some room for his lower register to ring out on the final takes.
Also, the harmonies, which are supposed to highlight specific areas, tend to do the exact opposite. When singing alone on the acoustic version, you hear the call at the beginning of the bridge “and this day will come” come up from the lower register and be responded to by a descending falsetto. Cleary, D’Angelo was trying to illustrate that this would perhaps be a call-and-response between backup singers and himself, but there were no backup singers on the final take. Just D’Angelo himself. And so in the end the “and this day will come” call becomes a cloudy layer of his own voice, and I had actually never felt the full effect of this repeating call until I heard just D’Angelo alone at the piano.
What hearing this acoustic take shows most of all though, is how good of a songwriter D’angelo is. “Africa” shows simple influences, but is masterful in its final harmonic form. There is no clear ‘melody’, but the varying melodies that D’angelo sings over the strict harmonic structure all create a perfect balance. The bridge is especially powerful, with the slight modulation at the end of the form highlighting a very clever use of tension. Really, this is the quintessential neo-soul song. The composition itself sounds like it could have been written in the heyday of soul, but D’Angelo made a conscious and pain-staking effort to modernize and individualize it, and in the end he did achieve a great balance between traditional song-writing and modern production.