When neo soul pioneer D’Angelo gave birth to his acclaimed album Voodoo at the beginning of the millennium, he strove to forge a dramatically divergent path from that of the high-gloss, streamlined, studio-perfected sounds that marked popular music of the day. He turned instead to a bygone age of black music, embracing the gritty, loose and colorful sounds of jazz, soul and funk artists from decades ago.

The result is an album with a decidedly vintage feel that embraces qualities reaching across the spectrum of black music and bears the mark of tropes established as far back as the ring shout traditions of early African-American culture. Chicken Grease (named for a supposedly Prince-coined term that refers to strumming chords in a distinct 16th note pattern [1] ) is a subdued, funky track featuring muffled, overdubbed vocals that sits quietly in the center of Voodoo. However, in a live setting, the tune becomes an animated stomp, building to a dramatic finale, complete with a fiery call-and-response exchange between D’Angelo and his backup singers Angie Stone and Anthony Hamilton.

Timbral distortions abound as D’Angelo moves effortlessly between steady rhythms in the chest register to falsetto shouts. The late Chalmers “Spanky” Alford repeats the simple harmonic figures of the song throughout, alternating stabs and strums of angular triads. The core of song is established via Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s syncopated drumming. He is complimented by bassist Pino Palladino, who outlines the harmony by remaining generally “in the pocket,” veering from the groove occasionally to insert tastefully off-beat melodic phrases laced with blue notes.

While Chicken Grease carries no discernable spiritual elements as the ancestral ring shout did, the tropes as they exist in this modern context work to establish a similar sort of communication between participants. Here the audience becomes part of the performance, immersing themselves in the incessant groove, seemingly compelled to stomp and shout in tandem with the musicians. This nearly involuntary reaction to the music suggests that the listeners recognize these tropes on perhaps a subconscious level, driven to reciprocate attributes of the performance because of socially conditioned behavior. Like in ring shout, D’Angelo’s Chicken Grease gives rise to a communal activity, a marriage of song and dance, and here, a frenetic celebration of a shared love of music.

D’Angelo – Chicken Grease (Live at The Chris Rock Show)

[1] To see Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s Review of Voodoo click here.

Michael Howard