Lyrically, D’Angelo has always been a bit of a mystery; try to follow along without a lyrics sheet and you’ll quickly realize enunciation is not his aim. His words sound like he pushes them out, less spoken or sung than emoted. It feels earnest. He doesn’t sound like he’s imitating Sly or Al Green. Rather, he’s channeling them. He’s not as direct as Marvin Gaye was when he released What’s Going On in 1971; while that record seemed urgent, Black Messiah feels more representative of our times. It might feel like “Black lives matter” is a new rallying cry, but it’s really the same song that’s been playing for years, just in a different tune.
It’s not all serious, though. “Sugah Daddy” — a collaboration between D’Angelo, Q-Tip, Foster, Palladino, and James Gadson — floats from the first note to the last, barely touching the ground. Watching him perform it onstage, it feels effortless, and that ease of expression comes through on the record.
Somehow D’Angelo managed to release one of the most eagerly anticipated records of the last few decades with a shrug and a smirk. After a few listens, his struggles over the last 15 years seem like a distant memory. One of the greatest voices of a generation is back at the pulpit, wowing us with his gifts and stoking flames — of desire, of activism, of expression.
Plus, for the first time in a long time, D’Angelo sounds like he’s having fun. Lucky us.