After Brown Sugar went platinum, Rock put D'Angelo on The Chris Rock Show. Later, when D was mixing Voodoo, Rock hung out some in the studio. No surprise, then, that the first thing out of Rock's mouth after "Hello" is a joyful "He's back!" But he adds a sobering downbeat: "D'Angelo. Chris Tucker. Dave Chappelle. Lauryn Hill. They all hang out on the same island. The island of What Do We Do with All This Talent? It frustrates me."
I tell Rock that Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the drummer for the Roots and one of D's closest collaborators, has ticked off much the same list. Questlove has a theory about what happens to black genius—what he calls "a crazy psychological kind of stoppage that prevents them from following through. A sort of self-saboteur disorder." Rock says he understands.
For a black star, Rock says, "there's a lot of pressure just to be responsible for other people's lives—to be the E. F. Hutton of your crew. Everything you say is magnified. I mean, street smarts only help you on the streets. Or maybe occasionally they will help you in the boardroom, but boy, you wish you knew a little bit about accounting." There is pressure to be original but also pressure to be commercial, to make money, to succeed. Sometimes the two run at cross-purposes.
I ask Questlove what he thinks has held D back. He says it's not just the way "Untitled" turned D'Angelo into "the Naked Guy," though of course that didn't help. It's something bigger. "We noticed early that all of the geniuses we admired have had maybe a ten-year run before death or, you know, the Poconos," he says. "That renders D paralyzed. He said he fears the responsibility and the power that comes with it. But I think what he fears most is the isolation"—the kind that fame brings.
Author Amy Wallace also published some outtakes from the piece, including Rock talking about his personal “Hall of Justice.”
Chris Rock: I’m around recording studios lot. I don’t know how to explain it. You know, I got tons of white friends, but as far as guys my age, artistic — there’s less comedians, especially in New York, especially black ones. So, hey, Mos Def is my age and, hey, I’m hanging out with Kanye in the studio. I ended up on the Kanye album. And they’re people you can talk to about this black fame thing.
Me: Right. I know they would all have something to say about it.
Rock: Everybody’s got an opinion. You know, watch the cartoons. The superheroes hang out in the Hall of Justice with the other superheroes. Superman doesn’t just hang in a bar. He hangs out at the League of Justice. When you get too isolated, you can go crazy. But that’s the cool thing about living in New York or L.A. You can be around artists. You can be in the Hall of Justice. And just by being around a bunch of people that are working on shit makes you work on shit. That’s always the question. “What are you working on? Let me hear it.”
If the negative aspects of black-genius-superfame intrigues ya, check out this 1990 conversation between Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee.