When Verzuz announced on Valentine’s Day that the reclusive R&B superstar D’Angelo, who has been under the radar since his brief tour in support of 2014’s “Black Messiah” album, would come out of his lair to perform with unnamed “Friends” at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater on February 27, the Internet immediately lit up with speculation about who he might lock horns with. The DJ competition series pits one artist or hitmaker against another in a (usually) friendly song-by-song battle, and has ranged from friends like singers Erykah Badu and Jill Scott praising each other to longtime rivals with genuine differences, such as Gucci Mane and Jeezy, airing things out. Would D’Angelo lock sonic horns with fellow mid-‘90s R&B legend like Maxwell? A collaborator like Questlove, Badu, Lauryn Hill or Raphael Saadiq? Considering the setting — the legendary Apollo, where singers from Billie Holiday and James Brown to Michael Jackson and a teenaged D’Angelo himself proved themselves — suggested something legendary. But days went by with no confirmed opponent announced — although Verzuz founders Swizz Beatz and Timbaland said in a chat that Maxwell was the original plan — and ultimately, there wasn’t one. Saturday night’s Verzuz broke format by featuring essentially a one-sided battle: D’Angelo, accompanied by DJ Scratch, singing along with his songs and accompanying himself on keyboards, with guest spots from H.E.R., Method Man and Redman.
D’Angelo’s brilliance as a songwriter and performer ever since he emerged with 1995’s babymaking classic “Brown Sugar,” and he upped the stakes with the future funk of 2000’s “Voodoo.” But he then vanished from view almost completely, re-emerging for “Black Messiah” — which effectively found him picking up where he left off — before going back into his shell, apart from a 2019 documentary entitled “Devil’s Pie.”
DJ Scratch kicked off the IG Live party at 9 pm ET with a tone-setting selection of era-appropriate hits (e.g. DeBarge, Jodeci, Mary J Blige) to an Instagram-commenting fan base that included Common, Lena Waithe, Common, Viola Davis, Lenny Kravitz and Quincy Jones.
Just before 10 p.m., D’Angelo walked onto the candle-strewn set on the stage of the Apollo with a cigarette in his hand, a wide-brimmed tan hat atop a scarf on his head and wearing, what appeared to be, a long billowy black mink coat (which caused one IG commenter to joke that he had borrowed his outfit from Badu’s closet) before welcoming the viewers.
“Peace and love, everybody,” he said quietly, sitting behind an electric keyboard, with a grand piano to his right. After sending a shout out to “my brother, Kamal, Q Tip,” D’Angelo introduced a “good friend of mine,” his trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and the pair twosome launched into a soft, jazzy number that is apparently new, including the lyrics “love is the thing that makes the world go around.” Regardless, D’Angelo invited the audience to sing along.
After getting out from behind his keyboard, Scratch dued up the the spare, finger-snapping backing track to D’s cover of Smokey Robinson’s classic “Cruisin’,” and he rolled into a string of other songs from early in his career, including a slow “Lady” and “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine.”
But things quickly picked up when veteran rappers Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan (clad in a maroon Def Jam jacket) and Redman (the only performer to wear a mask) joined D’Angelo for a rough-rapped R&B track “Left & Right,” which segued into Method’s own “Break Ups 2 Make Ups.” The three grooved together for the performance while D’Angelo smiled ear-to-ear, hugging his collaborators as they left the stage. “Give them their roses now — they’re legends, kings,” he said.
From there, D’Angelo moved through the clumpy electro-funk of “1000 Deaths” with a fuzz effect on his vocals, before slowing things down (“Let’s get into a vibe”) for several breezily crooned recent tracks like “Back to the Future, Pt. 1” and “Sugah Daddy.”
In between songs, he got wistful, recalling his first performance at a legendary Apollo Amateur night. “Whenever I come here I think of the first time, when I was just 16 or 17 years old,” he said.
“So what happened?,” quizzed straight-man Scratch.
“I won,” said D with a laugh. “That was my start as a professional. I think about this place, and about Harlem, and I think about community. Shout out to Harlem, to New York.” Both he and Scratch talked about “supporting Black business and entrepreneurship,” before D’ said “That’s where the power’s at. Power to the people.”
Returning to song, and a shout out to collaborator DJ Premier, D’Angelo launched into a slowly cascading “Devil’s Pie,” bringing his voice down to its lowest register. But then Scratch said, “Let’s change the pace, something for the ladies,” and the pair went into the churchy blues of “One Mo’ Gin,” an immensely funky “Chicken Grease” (complete with an assistant removing and replacing D’s coat, James Brown style) and a lo-fi, piano-led version of Roberta Flack’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” The two rolled through a few more songs — including “Send It On,” dedicated to the late ‘Robert “Kool” Bell of Kool in the Gang — before the pair teased a surprise guest.
H.E.R. then walked onstage in a powder-blue outfit, brandishing an acoustic guitar. “I’m your biggest fan!,” she said to D’Angelo. She launched into one of her own songs, “Best Part,” before sliding into his old-school duet with Lauryn Hill, “Nothing Even Matters,” while D’Angelo sang a verse and accompanied her on electric piano.
When H.E.R. departed, D’Angelo continued the “Nothing Even Matters” reverie with his own take on the track.
The set glided to a close with “The Root” and “Brown Sugar” and the pair seemed about to leave the stage until Scratch cued the rimshot-rhythm of the biggest request in the IG comments section peanut gallery: D’Angelo’s smoldering 2000 hit “Untitled (How Does It Feel?).” The pair delivered, and ended the party at precisely 11:30 p.m.
What’s next for D’Angelo is anyone’s guess, but the next Verzuz will continue the Wu-Tang Clan theme by pitting the group’s Raekwon and Ghostface against each other — and then the series will celebrate its first anniversary the way it began, with founders Swizz Beatz and Timbaland facing off again. Sources tell Variety that Verzuz will be announcing a new partner — after several successful months with Apple Music — in the coming days.