Today’s Song: D’Angelo’s “Unshaken” is the Guarded Knock on a Hidden Door

D’Angelo’s “Unshaken” off the ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ soundtrack puts the soul into your gaming console.

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Like the guarded knock on a hidden door, “Unshaken” off Red Dead Redemption II’s soundtrack starts off subtle yet rhythmically persistent. Rockstar Games’s RDR2, a wild Wild West themed video game has started a buzz amongst gamers and musicophiles alike. And while everybody loves the game, it’s artwork and storyline, that’s not all that people are so frenzied about. See, usually video game soundtracks are comprised of instrumentals that support and enhance the action on the screen. That’s why, when the RDR2 soundtrack broke away with “Unshaken,” a richly produced, New Orleans flavored Gospel track, everyone from players to spectators paused to take notice.

Stream: “Unshaken” – D’Angelo

If the song’s opening percussion was a secret knock on a hidden door, its introductory lyrics are the privately uttered password, a poetic combination of prayerful words, to help move us forward in our quest.

May I stand unshaken, amidst a crashing world…

Slowly opening like a hidden passage, the verse sets the scene.  Our main character is searching, asking questions of himself and the world around. It seems he is trying to figure out how he got here, in order to decide where he is going.

Did I hear a thunder?
Did I hear you break?
I can’t quite remember
Just what guided me this way 

And as the mantra continues, it gives way to the next verse, and another opportunity to get close to this deeply searching and sensual voice:

The pines, they often whisper
They whisper what no tongue can tell
He who drinks from the deep water
May he know the depths of the well

And it’s so good.

Unshaken D'Angelo
Unshaken – D’Angelo

As this gospel euphony casts its enigmatic spell by asking questions, we are left with a set of urgent questions of our own:

Who’s words are these?
Who’s voice is singing them?

The rumbling baritone pulls us close, begging us to turn up the volume as we ponder.  With lyrics that are so, Baghavanian, they sound as if they originate from the wise words of a stoically focused spiritual leader. But who?

Upon launching a full scale Google search, we find some answers.

D'Angelo © Mary Ellen Matthews
D’Angelo © Mary Ellen Matthews

The chorus was inspired by the words of Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, “You must stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”  It makes perfect sense that a guru known to have written “the book that changed the lives of millions” is responsible for such aspirations.

“Unshaken” radiates more resonance through the soul rousing voice of none other than renowned R&B smooth talkin, Soulquarian, D’Angelo. Many music enthusiasts are shocked to find out that the voice in “Unshaken” belongs to D’Angelo.  Showcasing his rarely used lower register, it’s hard to imagine D’Angelo’s sexy and sensitive falsesetto as heard in hits like, “Brown Sugar,”(’95) “Untitled,”(’00) and “Really Love” (’15) after experiencing the depths of “Unshaken.”

Despite the difference in D’Angelo’s vocal delivery, his approach to relaying lyrical ideas is on par with his normal standards. In a 2015 interview conducted by Tavis Smiley, D’Angelo explains his perspective on communicating lyrics:

“The one thing I don’t want to do is come off preachy. It’s a fine line. The most important thing to remember is that you’re not on the pedestal. You’re one of the people. So as a voice of the people I’m never talking to y’all I’m talking about us. So you’re including yourself in the whole thing that you’re discussing. That’s a key.”

So when Sri Paramahansa Yogananda’s original idea was worded: “You must stand unshaken amidst the crash of breaking worlds.”  D’Angelo’s lyric has a different, more prayerful perspective, “May I stand unshaken…” This perspective helps us to develop an understanding for D’Angelo’s artistic goals. “Music is such a universal language,” he explains to Mr. Smiley. “It crosses all the barriers of language and culture.” D’Angelo is hopeful, “I think people really feel the spirit of it.” In the case of RDR2, the spirit of “Unshaken” is being felt across the barriers of the gaming and music culture.  Making it possible for players and spectators alike to enjoy their gaming experience.

It makes sense that D’Angelo contributed to the RDR2 soundtrack. Rockstar’s director of music and audio, Ivan Pavlovich explains, “He [D’angelo] would come in here [Rockstar’s New York city office] and just play the game. We weren’t even talking about doing music,” Pavlovich recounted. “When D’Angelo comes through, he shows up at midnight, and he’s playing the game until four in the morning. Each time he was just like, ‘it’s incredible.’ It just blows his mind. He’s such a fan. I have never seen someone that excited.”

Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2

According to Rolling Stone Magazine, RDR2’s soundtrack is seasoned with “occasional vocal contributions from Rhiannon Giddens, Willie Nelson and D’Angelo at his most reflective.” And it has started a fever amongst avid music lovers, to grab these tracks for their own personal collections.  “Daniel Lanois, who oversaw the sprinkling of vocal tracks” reported that, “These songs are being ripped from the game and they’re on YouTube everywhere. There are Japanese pianists doing classical versions … I haven’t felt this kind of fever since the late Eighties, when I was knocking it out of the park [producing] Peter Gabriel and U2!”

Forbes Magazine’s contributing writer and gaming connoisseur, Dave Their explains that  “Unshaken” elevates a pivotal moment in the game as “we hear a song in the background play… a full vocal track when all we’ve heard is more traditional orchestral work throughout the rest of the game. It’s a powerful thing, made more powerful by the fact that it isn’t quite what we expect out of this here cowboy story. It’s a deep gospel piece, marked best by a strong percussion track that rhymes the horse hooves in-game and a quiet guitar line that nods to the western game it finds itself in.”

So many notable artists and thinkers can be credited with different aspects of “Unshaken’s” formation. Along with above mentioned creatives, shout outs are due to: Rocco DeLuca with lyrics, Brian Blade on drums, and Cyril Neville, who gave us (more) cow-bell.  All hands were on deck and, as a result, the finished product sparkles with magic. ATTENTION: D’Angelo fans need not be reminded of how infrequently he contributes to our musiverse.  A pure artist through and through, when asked how long it will be before he releases something new, he quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “How long? Not long.” So, soak this one in fans.

In the meantime, let’s hope D’Angelo’s plea to “stand unshaken amidst a crashing world,” rings true for us all in 2019 and beyond.

Stream: “Unshaken” – D’Angelo

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Unshaken D'Angelo

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