It’s been nearly 10 years since D’Angelo released his last album “Black Messiah,” and roughly five since he last appeared on a new single. So it’s safe to say that it’s a full-fledged cultural moment when the R&B icon pokes out from hiding to drop music.
Such is the case for “I Want You Forever,” one of the most highly anticipated tracks off the soundtrack for the biblical comedy-drama “The Book of Clarence.” In the week leading up to the movie, which hit theaters on Jan. 12, writer and director Jeymes Samuel gestured to the fact that the accompanying album would include a collaborative track between himself, D’Angelo and Jay-Z, with the news firming up soon after. Not only would the world be privy to a new D’Angelo song, but also a verse from Jay, whose output has slowed to such a trickle over the past few years that it’s a Shawn Carter holiday when he pops up on a soundtrack or even a DJ Khaled single.
So, what to make of the meeting of some of music’s greatest minds? “I Want You Forever” is a hazy, elastic jam where D’Angelo duets with Kendra Foster atop intergalactic keys courtesy of James Poyser and drum fills from Andre “Dre” Harris. D’Angelo’s parts on “Forever” don’t sound that far off from the layered harmonies of “Really Love” or “Another Life,” and he seems at ease repeating the song’s refrain as the track coasts on (and on, and on). Jay-Z, on the other hand, tries a somewhat new approach, approximating the instrumental with a sort of low-vibrational, stream-of-thought cadence and creating a dissociative space on the verse. It almost feels like a thought experiment, letting his sentences fall off the beat before catching up with it.
The perennial issue with original soundtracks is that the music often only makes sense contextualized in the film it scores, and can fall flat without the narrative to guide it. Jay-Z himself acknowledged this the day before the film’s release during a chat with Samuel on X (formerly Twitter). “That scene is meant for this song,” he said. “On its own, it’s a beautiful song and I can see me just driving somewhere, hours, just playing this song straight. But in that scene, it’s tailor-made for that scene.”
Which is to say that the loose, jammed song slots neatly into the soundtrack itself, while simply existing outside of it. A shorter version of the nine-minute track appears early on in the film, which focuses on Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) who claims to be the new Messiah following the ascent of Jesus Christ. “I Want You Forever” plays during a hookah lounge scene where he attempts to find a way out of debt owed to a local gangster and decides to become Jesus’ 13th apostle.
Jay-Z, who serves as producer on the movie, has been a longtime collaborator with Samuel dating back to 2010. The pair came up with the foundation for the song—on it, Samuel serves as producer, writer and co-arranger—and later incorporated D’Angelo into the mix. “Someone like D’Angelo, he moves in his own speed and his own time, so there’s no planning there,” added Jay-Z during his X chat. “You can’t plan that, you can’t say, ‘OK, I’ve got this song, come over Tuesday.’ It just has to happen like that. The circumstances, the vibes, the music, everything has to be in a perfect space for something like this to happen. Obviously, we haven’t collaborated for our entire careers, so it was meant for this moment right here.”
In that sense, “I Want You Forever” isn’t as concerted of an effort as you’d expect from Jay-Z and D’Angelo’s first collaboration, and it’s not what you would call a powerhouse duet. Maybe that’s a testament to their legacies and age—after all, there’s nothing to prove—and this is simply the level of musical Zen they’ve earned over the years. Or, perhaps, it’s just what the “Clarence” scene calls for, and its existence outside of it is just a byproduct. Either way, it’s a welcome reminder that two of hip-hop and soul’s greatest figures haven’t lost the hunger for the art form they helped mold, even if that mold isn’t as steadfast as it once was.