By 1991, eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Michael D'Angelo Archer had formed his native-Richmond, Virginia musical group—Michael Archer and Precise—and achieved success on the Amateur Night competition at Harlem, New York's Apollo Theater in 1991. Soon after, he dropped out of school and moved to New York City, as an attempt to develop his own music career. The group had previously enjoyed some notice in Richmond, evenly dividing their repertoire between soul covers and originals, while D'Angelo accumulated compositions of his own and developed his songwriting skills. The group's turnout on Amateur Night resulted in three consecutive wins and a cash prize, after which, upon returning home to Richmond, D'Angelo was inspired to produce his own album and began composing material.
After a brief tenure as a member of the hip hop group I.D.U. (Intelligent, Deadly but Unique), D'Angelo signed a publishing deal with EMI Music in 1991 after catching the attention of record executives through a demo tape, which was originally by the group. After impressing EMI execs with a three-hour impromptu piano recital, D'Angelo was signed to a recording contract in 1993. A&R-man Gary Harris was primarily responsible for his signing, while manager Kedar Massenburg helped negotiate the contract as well. Massenburg became D'Angelo's manager after hearing of him through "the buzz on the streets". He had previously managed hip hop group Stetsasonic and formed the artist management-firm Kedar Entertainment in 1991, which he diversified into production, music publishing and publicity.
In 1994, his first significant success came in the form of the hit single "U Will Know". D'Angelo co-wrote and co-produced the song for the all-male R&B supergroup Black Men United, which featured R&B singers such as Brian McKnight, Usher, R. Kelly, Boyz II Men, Raphael Saadiq and Gerald Levert. D'Angelo composed the music for "U Will Know", while his brother, Luther Archer, wrote the lyrics. Originally featured on the soundtrack to the film Jason's Lyric (1994), the single peaked at number 5 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks and number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. The music video for "U Will Know" featured D'Angelo as the group's choir director; he reprised the role for the live performance of the song at the Soul Train Music Awards. That same year, he wrote and produced the song "Overjoyed" for the Boys Choir of Harlem, which appeared on their studio album The Sound of Hope (1994). The success of "U Will Know" helped build the buzz surrounding D'Angelo, which was followed by a number of highly promoted performance showcases, and added to the buzz among music industry insiders.