THE WHOLE enterprise of rap can be read as the male attempt to reclaim "the mic" from women, who have dominated singing. Sure, there have been great male singers in the past, but often their success came at the cost of their masculinity, which they had to relinquish in order to compete with women. Rap, on the other hand, retains masculinity with very little spillage. It's why the delivery of many female rappers (Heather B, Queen Latifah) is essentially masculine. "This is not a lesbo flow/I just wanted you mutherfuckers to know [how I feel]," apologizes the woman on Junior Mafia's "Get Money," recognizing that in order to adequately match Biggie Small's hyper-masculine rant she has to surrender all femininity.

Rapping is for men, singing is for women; Method Man on one side, Mary J. Blige on the other. It was rap that established this order, and rap that sustained it -- by systematically erasing from popular existence the crooner, the lonely loverman, who sings because he has a soft soul. Even in the early '80s, the crooner was the target of rising rap stars like LL Cool J, who violently threatened to turn androgynous Prince into "mince meat" in "I'm Bad"; and Run-D.M.C., whose "King of Rock" proclaimed that they were "hard," and not "weak" like effeminate Michael Jackson. By the '90s, the crooner was almost extinct (where is Terence Trent D'Arby, or even Bobby Brown, whose very marriage to pop diva Whitney Houston symbolizes the position the male singer has to his female counterpart?), while male rappers exploded into monsters of masculinity: Dr. Dre, Redman, and DMX. Today they push their already bloated personas to the very ends of macho (Mac Ho).

There have been relatively successful male rappers/singers who produced music that seemed ready to plunge into the feminine. Montel Jordan, Domino, and D'Angelo are three such artists; men who, despite their great potential, only skimmed the surface of what was possible and inevitable. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, one of them gave up all resistance to the feminine, and transformed himself into something utterly beautiful: crepuscular, sensuous, sun-soaked, half naked, half dream, half female. That artist is D'Angelo.

"The Aquarian Age is a matriarchal age, and if we are to exist as men in this new world many of us must learn to embrace and nurture that which is feminine with all of our hearts (he-arts)," writes D'Angelo in the sleeve notes to his new CD, Voodoo. What is even more impressive about his total surrender to the feminine -- and what I think represents the real problem with being a male singer -- is his willingness to be desired not only by women, but by men. This is what rap wanted to eliminate; it only wanted to offer its male audience men they wanted to emulate, not fuck. But D'Angelo acknowledges the fact that many men will gaze at him as an object of desire, as someone they want to kiss. For example, in the picture next to his sleeve notes, D'Angelo is sitting with five beautiful women, but instead of making the women naked and himself dressed (in something gaudy, as rappers do), he is also half naked, half flesh. He, like the women, is the object of desire, the body we want to hold, to caress with our fingertips.

The vocals on D'Angelo's Voodoo are composed of incoherent moans and distorted moments. His odes, poems, and whispers are like words written on a beach; each time you come close to making sense of them, the sea rushes up and washes them away. The CD is near perfect, except for "Left and Right," which fails because it features Method Man and Redman who, as expected, frustrate and destroy the song's sensuous possibilities with their hyper-masculine declarations: "You want a dick rider to set your pussy on fire!" Redman and Method Man should not even register in D'Angelo's world, because they know nothing about erotic atmospheres ("Make you feel like a pearl/rub your back and fulfill your needs/feel the tender touch of your caress" -- D'Angelo), only pornographic dead ends ("Drop that ass when I'm finished and watch it smoke" -- Method Man).

All in all, the twilight aesthetics of Prince, Marvin Gaye, and Terence Trent D'Arby -- those moody, oceanic, mystical crooners who submitted to "the path of our mothers: that electric lady that landed us here in the first place" -- are the inspiration behind this voluptuous effort.

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