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  • "Singing Love Songs to Mr. Death":Racial Terror and the State of Erection in D'Angelo's "(Untitled) How Does It Feel?"
  • Aimé J. Ellis (bio)

In 2000, hip hop soul artist extraordinaire Michael "D'Angelo" Archer dropped his much anticipated second album, Voodoo. The album was introduced over U. S. mainstream radio and music video stations in late 1999 with his Grammy-winning single, "(Untitled) How Does It Feel?" As D'Angelo's lyrical style and captivating visual performance of the song reliably returns to the rather straightforward convention of the soulful R&B ballad, it also contains palpable traces of something else. This sexy love song and its accompanying video were produced in an era when the black male body has come to signify—both literally and figuratively—the very convergence of death and desire in contemporary U. S. popular culture. That is, D'Angelo's seductive force in the song represents one of the ways in which black men have come to experience a precarious relation to both life and death. In the highly frenetic space of erotic song, black men's passionate and emancipatory longing for life becomes inextricably tied to a paradoxical yearning for death, a yearning that exemplifies many black men's complicity with and, for my purposes, resistance to the erotics of racism in contemporary U. S. popular culture.

I am suggesting that "Untitled" serves as a stage upon which D'Angelo sings not only of sexual joy and intimacy but also hints at what is largely deemed impermissible in the culture—the possibilities of freedom to be found in the space of death. In looking to "Untitled" as enmeshed within a political economy of life and death meted out in each lyrical phrase and vocal vibrato, I want to take seriously if not literally D'Angelo's mystical aspiration in the liner notes of the Voodoo album to "seduce and serenade the night and powers of darkness" in order to evoke "the mysteries of the unseen." While the liner notes go on to paint a rather grandiose picture of D'Angelo as a self-anointed "conjur [sic] man" whose artistic genius invokes the spirits of "Jimi [Hendrix], Sly [Stone], Marvin [Gaye], [and] Stevie [Wonder]," the lyrics of "Untitled" (like most of the songs from the Voodoo album) are strikingly bare yet curiously difficult to understand. 1

Certainly, the penetrating visual focus of the music video implicitly overshadows the lyrical performance of the song. In part, this privileged attention to D'Angelo's body and physical movement is symptomatic of the visual medium of music videos itself. Famed pop music video director Paul Hunter's repeated shifting away from D'Angelo's mouth while he sings—his cutting back and forth between D'Angelo's face, torso, lower abdomen, and back so that the lyrics appear at moments displaced if not dubbed over the video frame—only magnifies the camera's wanderlust into the erotic landscape of D'Angelo's body. Appearing to convey disinterest in the vocal material, Hunter's photographic if not pornographic gaze slices away at the song's poetic intelligibility. To make matters more complicated, the music video version of the "original," full-length song from the album is drastically abridged for television and radio. This is par for the course in a music industry that came to rely on eagerly awaited, larger-than-life music videos as promotional advertisements for the sale of records; the abbreviated and edited music video (as well as the radio-edit versions) appeared to the public well before the original version of the song was available for [End Page 295] purchase. Given these market constraints and challenges, Hunter's camera subtly edits out the musical text deemed nonessential. This hyper-digitized reconstitution of the music and music video effectively takes place through directing viewers away from what D'Angelo is saying, violently obfuscating if not hollowing out his subjective voice even as the camera returns to accentuate the workings and contours of D'Angelo's oral cavity.

Hunter's privileging of D'Angelo's body, the invasive editing of the music-video text, and the barren transcription of the lyrics all work to...


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