Given fourteen years, what would an artist who could produce the caliber of music that wound up on Voodoo conjure up, provided invaluable resources and a supporting crew of creative minds? D’Angelo is back and definitely not without any fanfare. The neo-soul pioneer of the 90s and early 2000s made a comeback as coveted as any other great artist returning from a hiatus, and his new LP Black Messiah was very much long-awaited. D’Angelo’s band The Vanguard also claims a piece of the crown for bringing this album into fruition and creating the album’s innermost workings, yet D’Angelo artfully took the reigns of what is now Black Messiah in a way that few before him have done. An album that was roughly twelve years in the making, Black Messiah marks a release that will be revered for its innovation (especially in regards to music nowadays), breadth of creativity, and sensual personality. Black Messiah might just be a future classic.
If you’ve been yearning for D’Angelo’s return after his 2000 release Voodoo, then you’ve probably heard a few of the songs that appear on Black Messiah. Do not fret, because these songs have been cleaned up and expertly tailored for an official release. Despite this fact, those in tune to everything D’Angelo’s been up to may have heard when Questlove let loose a rough, unfinished version of “Really Love” back in 2007, or “1000 Deaths” when it leaked on the internet a few years back (although it was taken down by D’Angelo himself). Then just the other night, Red Bull Music Academy released the infectious “Sugah Daddy” that spread like wildfire across the interwebs.
Never mind any leaks, because D’Angelo delivers in a huge way with Black Messiah. Besides D’Angelo having written and produced every song on the album, along with help and support from the likes of The Vanguard, Questlove, Q-Tip, jazz musician Kendra Foster, renowned bassist Pino Palladino, as well as drummer and session musician James Gadson, D’Angelo resurrected the non-traditional song structure famously heard on his critically acclaimed sophomore effort, Voodoo. Yet on Black Messiah, D’Angelo kept his songs short (none go over six minutes, while only two go under five minutes on Voodoo). Apparently, there were dozens of songs cut down to the twelve heard on the album, so there might have been some that fit the lengthy trend of his sophomore effort, but the shorter songs on his third LP gave D’Angelo the opportunity to maximize each song’s potential (see Kanye West‘s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and cannot hurt the replay value this album possesses.
Musically, the songs are unlike previous music released by the singer/producer. If Brown Sugar was D’Angelo’s commercially appreciated R&B debut, and Voodoo was his structure-breaking hip-hop/neo-soul magnum opus, then Black Messiah is the funk-rock materialization of a multifaceted musician. Sure there are bits of soul in D’Angelo’s heavily layered vocals, and J Dilla‘s drum rhythms still echo on songs like “Ain’t That Easy,” “Sugah Daddy” and “Back to the Future (Part 1),” and there are definitely stand-out tracks, as well, but Black Messiah is a whole new masterpiece in its own right. The familiar mumbles of lyrics make some lines hard to understand, but over multiple listens (and the help of printed lyrics), D’s words don’t go unnoticed.
Various themes are explored on this album, those of sex, love, life, yet none are as shocking as D’Angelo’s social and political consciousness sprinkled throughout. The cover itself resembles something of protest and defiance, yet at the same time, unity and power. The lyrics that allude to social and political consciousness are loudest on “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade,” two songs about the lives of African-Americans past, present and future. “1000 Deaths” sounds more like a frightened narrative, starting off:
“I can’t believe I can’t get over my fear/
They’re gonna send me over the hill/
Ah, the moment of truth is near/
They’re gonna send me over the hill.”
What’s more is the timing of this social commentary. The past few months, even years, tragedies like what has happened between police and African-Americans allude to an unrest in the racial sector of the United States of America. These heavy issues have been discussed by many, but now so timely by D’Angelo in songs he made years ago. “The Charade” may refer directly to the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century, but the applications can be resembled unto today’s times, as D’Angelo further sings:
“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.”
The power in D’Angelo’s words are only perpetuated by the complexities of the music. Do not expect loops and predictable measures; do not expect catchy hooks and memorable one-liners; do not expect anything except powerful music. As I mentioned earlier, coming off the stride of Voodoo, D’Angelo works with a continuous stream of consciousness with his music. Rather than fall into traditional conventions (e.g. verse-bridge-hook-verse-bridge-hook-bridge-hook), the songs on Black Messiah vary greatly. Some have repeated choruses, some have a single chorus, some have no chorus. Some are just various lines repeated over and over (see “Back to the Future (Part II),” which is more or less an intrinsic jam session based off of the workings of “Back to the Future (Part I)”).
It is hard to single out any songs that are really all that much better than other songs. Nevertheless, a few favorites do stand out in due time. “The Charade” is gritty in its reliance on a rock-themed foundation; “Really Love” is captivating in its epic and passionate demonstration of a love story through not only the lyrics, but the acoustic guitar and swinging rhythm; “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” has an infatuating melody and signature Questlove drums; “Betray My Heart” finds D’Angelo partially crooning the equivalent of a love letter over a minimalistic soundscape, lavishing with sweet guitar riffs and just a few horns; “Another Life” and its bouncing cadence and ultimate, conclusive tone, complete with a charming piano accompaniment.
What works best is to void all preconceived notions of what a song is and let D’Angelo do the talking. Peppered throughout are notes of that funk-rock I mentioned, along with elements of his intrinsic neo-soul, and then some other fusion and hip-hop (mostly in the rhythms, but even there it is minimal). What is remarkable about Black Messiah is more than the fact that it simply exists, but rather how natural its complexity and novelty feels. Black Messiah feeds off of old-school vibes like that of Prince’s funk-rock and Miles Davis’ hip-hop/jazz-rock fusion heard on his album On The Corner. Yet at the same time, Black Messiah fits in an eclectic, modern-day category of genre-bending material. In today’s age, artists are pulling from endless inspirations to create music that will push the boundaries of what is considered typical, right, or even just good. D’Angelo has no problem creating a modern-day pièce de résistance that breaks borders on any confining variables of what anyone thinks is music in an age when computers do most of the work, and yet Black Messiah feels so timeless in its spirit that after so many listens, it’s hard to deny the magnitude of this record.