‘Black Messiah’: Tracking D’Angelo’s 15-Year Absence, With a Little Help From Questlove


When D’Angelo’s new album, Black Messiah, was released this morning, it capped off 14 — let’s be honest, more like 15 — years of waiting for a follow-up to his classic soul album, 2000’s Voodoo. That is so much time. The world has changed completely. After all the rumors, the silence, and the reclusive genius staying (somewhat) reclusive, Black Messiah delivers on two great promises: D’Angelo’s talent, and his buddy Questlove’s constant assurances that an album is coming and it’s going to be great.

There were moments when I didn’t believe Questlove. I saw D’Angelo this summer at Brooklyn’s Afro-Punk Festival, and while he was in fine form, the performance didn’t necessarily suggest that a new album was coming — it was a set of soul-stirring covers, filled with anger and passion. But as this morning proved, we could all learn a little something from Questlove’s faith. As we celebrate Black Messiah, it’s worth remembering the long road D’Angelo took to get here, from profiles of the artist at the top of his game circa 2000 to later pieces lamenting his disappearance and, finally, the first signs of his comeback.

D’Angelo Is Holding Your Hand,” Touré, Rolling Stone, May 2000

In this snapshot of D’Angelo at his peak, Touré goes behind the scenes and captures some of the funky, unforgettable hysteria of the Voodoo live tour. At this point in time, Questlove went by ?uestlove, the recording process for Voodoo had taken five years, and D’Angelo had recorded 120 hours of music in a quest for perfection, to make something that “Yodas” like James Brown and Prince would be into.

Notable Quest quote: “You know how some students are afraid to leave school? … it was like school. That’s why it took four years.”

Interview with Questlove,” Touré, The Believer, August 2003

Three years on, Questlove is awfully blunt about some of the demons that drive D’Angelo’s work — including, fascinatingly, some raging insecurity that was aggravated by the success of his sex-god “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video. “I mean, everyone’s insecure, but he’s insecure to the level where I felt as though I had to lose myself and play cheerleader,” said Quest. “He’d literally hold the show up for half an hour just to do crunches. We would hold the show for an hour and a half if he didn’t feel mentally prepared or physically prepared.”

Notable Quest Quote: “Quiet as it’s kept, the reason why I worked on Voodoo was because I wanted to be a part of something that could possibly be on that level… My involvement was never monetary. I didn’t get the rest of my check.”

Rumors of a new D’Angelo album began surfacing as early as 2005, according to the Okayplayer message boards.

Body and Soul,” David Peisner, Spin, August 2008

In a piece that details D’Angelo’s mid-2000s troubles, including run-ins with the law for drug possession and drunk driving, we learn that he went to rehab after troubles with alcohol. At this point, D’Angelo and Questlove’s friendship has become strained: “I’m afraid that I’ll lose him,” the drummer said.

Notable Questlove Quote: “He needs to just stop tripping over his feet and make his record already.”

New D’Angelo Single Hits iTunes,” Gail Mitchell, Billboard, September 2008

A remake of “I Found My Smile Again,” originally covered for the 1996 Space Jam soundtrack, was made available on iTunes. D’Angelo’s manager Linsday Guion is quoted as saying, “He’s able to smile again and he’s ready to connect [with fans]. He’s coming back. And he looks great, by the way.”

In 2009, it was rumored that Mark Ronson was working with D’Angelo, and that D’Angelo loved the producer’s work on Amy Winehouse’s Black to Black.

?uestlove Talks Michelle Bachman Fiasco, New D’Angelo Album,” Ryan Dombal, Pitchfork, December 2011

In this interview, Quest promises that the album is 97 percent done: “[D’Angelo] needs somebody to smack him and take the record away from him because it’s pretty much finished.” He also compares it to The Beach Boys’ Smile and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Notable Quest Quote: “There’s stuff on there I was amazed at, like new music patches [keyboard sounds] I’ve never heard before. I’d ask him, “What kind of keyboard is that?” I thought it was some old vintage thing. But he builds his own patches.”

Amen! (D’Angelo’s Back),” Amy Wallace, GQ, June 2012

The wonderful profile writer Wallace recounts D’Angelo’s bottoming out — two stints in rehab, car accidents, a genuine fear that he’d die young — and how he got past that fear to start performing again, with an album on the horizon. Questlove is also there, of course, discussing his theory of the heavy weight of black genius: “a crazy psychological kind of stoppage that prevents them from following through. A sort of self-saboteur disorder.”

Notable Quest Quote: “I’ve told him: He is literally holding the oxygen supply that music lovers breathe. At first, it was cute — ‘Oh, he’s bashful.’ But now he’s, like, selfish. I’m like, ‘Look, dude, we’re starving.’ When D starts singing, all is right with the world.”

Questlove: New D’Angelo Album Will Be a ‘180 Degree Turn,'” Patrick Doyle, Rolling Stone, June 2012

Questlove discusses jamming out with D’Angelo at Bonnaroo, and how the singer has a new facility for the guitar. He also describes D’Angelo as “painfully shy.”

Notable Quest Quote: “We spoke the day after [Bonnaroo] and he said, ‘I’m so happy.’ I said, ‘Now you just turn in your damn record. Just finish. Just turn it in. Let your children go already.'”

D’Angelo 2014 Red Bull Music Academy Lecture,” May 2014

Let’s end this with an hour-plus talk, in which author Nelson George speaks to D’Angelo. He exists!

Black Messiah is released, December 2014

Year-end lists are frantically rewritten, and everybody freaks out — as well they should. Questlove tweets. Nearly 15 years of faith is turned into a glorious sonic reward.

Notable Quest quote: