“Ain’t no justice … just us. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
— D’Angelo, “Devil’s Pie” (Voodoo, 2000)
Just as an urban hip-hop vibe lent depth and grit to D’Angelo’s soulful R&B and gospel roots, so too did fear and trepidation cloud the groundswell of ecstatic anticipation of the surprise release of his much-anticipated third album. Appearing almost out of nowhere, one couldn’t help but wonder how the 14 years of relative quiet had affected the mercurial but immensely talented singer. Had the bleeding heart visionary of Brown Sugar (1995) and Voodoo (2000) grown distant and hard in a decade beset by a long list of public and private misfortunes? Considering the title, Black Messiah, was this new D’Angelo positioning himself as a “second coming,” on some cosmic-level Kanye ego ish? Would the album itself be composed of half-baked B-sides? Or, even worse, an over-produced Chinese Democracy mess? Would the Michael “D’Angelo” Archer we (thought) we knew and loved be anywhere to be found?
D’Angelo has always had an almost supernatural power to combine influences into a coherent whole, while also conveying tremendous power and gravity via deceptively simple melodies and arrangements. Despite the decade-plus since his last album and the innumerable changes in the music scene — and in life and society at large — album opener “Ain’t That Easy” assuages any fears that D’Angelo’s musical power has diminished in the intervening years. Built around an entwined rhythm and lead guitar groove, there remains room enough for feverishly darting guitar licks. Much like the defined openness of a jazz composition, the tight song still offers room for deeply technical and oftentimes spiritual play.
When D’Angelo’s voice emerges from the mix, first in a layered chorus of voices (most of them D’Angelo dubs), and later lounging in the middle register, before swinging up into the heavenly falsetto that made him a star, we have confirmation: D’Angelo is fucking back. And he sounds as good, if not better, than ever.
In hindsight, it should come as no surprise that it took a surge of social and civic upheaval to shake a new D’Angelo record loose from the firmament. Much has been made of the role played by the tide of social and political unrest of our contemporary moment pushing the hurried release of Black Messiah. In that way, we can experience a moment of grace knowing that the tragedies of Ferguson, MO, and New York, NY, (among numerous others) have already started to motivate discussion, reform, and production in ways social, judicial, and artistic.
But it’s important to note that the songs that comprise Black Messiah are not “inspired” by the aforementioned tragedies. However, that fact only serves to strengthen the enduring power of the message. The album’s most overtly political song, “The Charade”, has enjoyed some semblance of life, in live performance and internet leaks, since 2012. But when D’Angelo, here quiet and pensive, as if the words themselves are too dangerous to shout, intones: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk/ Feet have bled, a million miles we’ve walked/ Revealing at the end of the day, the charade,” his inspiration is not an immediate or isolated instance, but a long history of tragic injustice, one not likely to disappear any time soon.
“The Charade” joins “1000 Deaths” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” to form a living, breathing, deeply political core, but D’Angelo has never been a firebrand. Dating back to earlier songs like “Devil’s Pie”, he’s more keenly attuned to the environment’s effect on the individual. D’Angelo was, and remains, music’s most passionate advocate for the health and afterlife of the human soul.
D’Angelo spends the majority of time on Black Messiah continuing his career-long exploration of the healing power of love and the deleterious effects of love gone wrong. “Really Love” represents the former, as D’Angelo rises soft and smooth as a bird’s song. When in an almost pleading falsetto he whispers, “I’m not an easy man, to overstand/ You feel me/ But girl your patient with me/ Doo doo wah, I’m in really love with you, I’m in really love with you,” the song opens itself as a window into a deeply personal moment for the singer.
D’Angelo shares billing here with “The Vanguard,” a who’s-who of collaborators both old and new. Russell Elevado, also audio engineer on Voodoo, remains at the helm, as D’Angelo is supported by familiar faces like Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (drums), Pino Palladino (bass), and Q-Tip (writing credits). Jazz trumpeter and composer Roy Hargrove rejoins the team after having provided singularly distinctive charts and licks for Voodoo. A dash of the new comes in the form of jazz guitarist Isaiah Sharkey (guitar) and Parliament collaborator Kendra Foster, who has writing credit on seven songs and offers backing vocals throughout.
The album’s liner notes offer this tidbit about the recording process: “No digital “plug-ins” of any kind were used in this recording. All of the recording, processing, effects, and mixing was done in the analog domain using tape and mostly vintage equipment. For best results, listen at maximum volume.” The arrangements are layered and complex (as always), but the analog warmth is best felt on “less is more” tracks like “Prayer”, where the painfully drawn-out anticipation of a tolling church bell leaves room for some of the album’s sharpest guitar work, or “The Door”, perhaps the song’s most intimate song, with its sweetly hummed tune set against a gentle acoustic guitar, smooth as Alabama sweet tea.
The thematic and cosmic through-line that connects Voodoo (and by proxy Brown Sugar) to Black Messiah can be found in the righteous, improvisational jazz swing at the heart of lead single “Sugah Daddy”. Where Voodoo, and in particular “Chicken Grease”, was the child of R&B and jazz — conceived in a ramshackle Atchafalaya shack, birthed on the sparkling floor of a Pentecostal Church, and raised on the mean streets of Queens — “Sugah Daddy” echoes a similar sounding of the deep that gave birth to a long history of songs devoted to that special lady on the grind (see Charles, Ray, “I Got a Woman”). “Sugah Daddy” is a prime example of D’Angelo’s uncanny ability to push and innovate without ever straying far, sonically or thematically, from his influences. His compassion for his subject remains near, as he comments with grudging respect, “Girl’s got a worldly view/ What’s a sassy girl to do/ And if the decision was left up to me/ You best believe that I would be her sugah daddy.” And the freewheeling interaction between an acoustic piano riff and D’Angelo’s wildest voice play (“She said I promise that I’ll sock it to you, Daddy”) is just damn fun.
Despite emerging as a full-grown, fire-breathing sex dragon on Brown Sugar, D’Angelo’s output has always been marked with a degree of self-aware anxiety, a feeling that no doubt abounds in the music world but is rarely addressed openly. With the “report from the interior” tone of “Back to the Future (Part I)” (and its late album reprise), we get the clearest vision of the clouds casting shadows in the artist’s mind and confirm that he did not escape the 14-year hiatus unscathed. His sense of displacement is invoked immediately, as he comments on his relationship with the empty R&B throne:
Traveling at the speed of light and then
At the same time I’m in the same spot too
The room was kept in
‘Bout the same way you left it
With about the threats you mess in attitude
Where ya’ been with all your grin
Until all your friends turn their backs on you
Reminiscing over what you’ve been missing
Could be just like cousins kissing
In the chorus, D’Angelo invokes a desire to “go back, back to the way it was,” but what past is he referring to? Before he became a star? His height of fame around the release of Voodoo? More than a sense of nostalgia, he acknowledges that he simply doesn’t get the same electric rush that he once did: “I used to get real high, now I/ But now I’m just gettin’ a buzz.” Suddenly an image crystallizes, one of an artist burned by the fire of brilliance, increasingly desperate to get that feeling back.
The seeming absence of contemporary pop and R&B sounds throughout Black Messiah is perhaps the album’s most remarkable aspect. In the break between Voodoo and Black Messiah (roughly 14 years, 12 months, and 15 days — but who’s counting?), D’Angelo either ignored the rise and fall of pop trends, or more likely assimilated them so deeply that every borrowed sound became his own. The hiatus after each album (compounding by a factor of four) makes a fan wonder whether we will ever hear new music from D’Angelo again. An artist of uncompromising power and originality, he has proven that he will not, cannot conform to the expectations of the music industry, his adoring fans, or anyone else. He is a delicate, impulsive genius of rare distinction, and this defiant streak is essential to the character of his music. The two facts must be accepted in turn. With Black Messiah, D’Angelo has silenced any doubters and re-confirmed his invitation as the heir apparent to the R&B throne, whether he continues to refuse the honor or not. We can hope the critical and commercial success of Black Messiah will urge him to greater creative heights, but if it does not, we must rest happy and sated with this latest deep, diverse, and satisfying offering.
Essential Tracks: “Sugah Daddy”, “Back to the Future (Part I)”, “The Door”