D’Angelo and The Vanguard – Black Messiah
When D’Angelo’s Black Messiah suddenly appeared in the middle of December 2014, it was shocking. Announced the very day it was released (a growing trend among our more secretive stars), the 14-year hiatus following Voodoo sent the music press spiraling into overdrive. But once that settled down, once the album made its midnight release and everyone took some time to digest it, another shock set in—this album was really good. Not just good for a comeback album, which itself would be a welcome surprise, but D’Angelo good, a record that could stand with some of the best of 2014, even if most of the best-of lists were already published by the time anyone knew this was coming out.
But as abrupt as it was, Black Messiah didn’t just blink into existence. Reports, leaks and interviews with collaborators dating back about a decade confirm that D’Angelo had been piecing together this thing for years, cutting and re-cutting dozens of tracks and eventually settling on the 12 that made the record. And even then, he only released the album when he did in reaction to the nationwide protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of white policemen, when he realized it might be something the country, the black community more importantly, needed right now. Yet what’s remarkable is that, despite the record’s protracted gestation period, Black Messiah is loose and limber, raw and spontaneous, rarely feeling fussed over even if its layered, detailed rhythms and heated release date suggest otherwise.
Fittingly, this album tugs at some of the political strings that threaded their way through Voodoo and runs with them. It’s never preachy or heavy-handed, though, with D’Angelo choosing to let the music do a lot of the speaking for him. There’s anger here, bitterness, sadness, all justified, all detailed in clever, evocative turns of phrase that dot the record. Perhaps weirdly, though not particularly surprising for D’Angelo, he and his producers deliberately mask his voice in manipulations and bury his words in the mix on occasion there to emphasize the music’s feel, which is fine and all, but when the lyrics do surface (or if you read along with a printed copy), they are often good enough that you wish you’d be able to make them out more often on a couple of the songs.
But that’s no matter since Black Messiah is primarily a musical triumph, blending and bending genres and time periods together so that the past is constantly feeding off the present and vice versa. D’Angelo kept around much of the same backing he had on Voodoo (now credited as the Vanguard), including Questlove on drums and session bassist Pino Palladino, and brought in Q-Tip and erstwhile Parliament-Funkadelic player Kendra Foster to contribute writing credits. Together they create music that’s not too different than his past work on paper—a mix of classic R&B and funk mixed with some modern rock and hip-hop—but there’s a rougher, more adventurous edge to these tracks, even when the songs are languid and silky. The slinky “Sugah Daddy” finds new wrinkles in D’Angelo’s sex-symbol persona, with him teasing with impish glee; “Betray My Heart” skips and stops, punctuating his every reassurance and coo; then there’s “The Charade,” which is one of his smoothest, catchiest pop grooves, but that just disguises the seething and weariness below the surface: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/Still we only got outlined in chalk,” a line written years ago but feels all too vital in the wake of 2014’s highly publicized police brutality.
It’s the more eclectic tracks, though, that give Black Messiah its forward-thinking identity. The raucous “1000 Deaths” moves past the Sly Stone comparisons to find that D’Angelo has his own sort of riot goin’ on, full of stuttering, pummeling drums and sharp bass exclamation rather than narcotic flow. “The Door”‘s get-up handclaps and twangy riffs feel like it’s some sort of slow jam at a county fair. Or listen to how “Really Love” begins with a deep drone that rises into an orchestral movement, glides on some tense flamenco guitar before settling into a lovely Latin-infused R&B. What distinguishes Black Messiah is how natural all this feels. It can feel like an epic, especially when the “Back To The Future” reprise flows into the dreamy, ascendant “Another Life”, but it never feels self-important or indulgent. (At 55 minutes, it’s about the length of his debut and 20 minutes shorter than Voodoo, which, as great as it is, can be an unwieldy, bloated thing.) It’s impossible to say whether or not this album was “worth” the 14 year gap, just as it’s impossible to determine whether a great, expensive vacation is worth the price. It feels right now, and it will probably still feel right a year from now, and that’s all that matters. D’Angelo had a lot to say for so long, and if he’s the sort of artist who needs to take a while to create the music he wants, especially when it’s this good, so be it.