Black Messiah, D’Angelo’s first new album in almost 15 years, doesn’t feel like the tortured manuscript of a man struggling with doubt and questioning his self-worth. Instead, it sounds like the result of a world-weary artist’s maturation. It’s warm, inviting, smooth — and at times, exceedingly real about the world we live in now. D’Angelo records sound like every soul and jazz record you’ve ever heard filtered through the experience of the black man in America at the turn of the century. Black Messiah is no exception.
If the title and the raised fists on the album cover weren’t enough of a hint, he gets a bit more vocal about social issues on his newest LP. D’Angelo even name-checks global warming (and humanity’s apparent apathy about it): “Carbon pollution is heating up the air/ Do we really know? Do we even care?/ Acid rain dripping on our trees and in our hair/ Are you there?” He mixes military metaphors of war and cowardice with evangelical fire and brimstone on “1000 Deaths.” The chorus of “The Charade” — “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ’Stead we only got outlined in chalk” — seems pre-destined for T-shirts on the front lines of our current police brutality protests.
R&B sounds a lot different in 2014 than it did at the peak of neo-soul in 2000, when D’Angelo released his last full-length, Voodoo, and the Soulquarians were embedded in the mainstream. Black Messiah’s long gestation period seems to have further distanced it from its contemporaries. The Roots’ Questlove, now of Tonight Show bandleader fame, is a famous taskmaster in rehearsals and recording sessions; the band he assembled on Black Messiah, the Vanguard, toes the line between tight playback of careful compositions and loose jam sessions. Veteran session player Pino Palladino contributes more than just driving bass lines; he shares writing credits on “Sugah Daddy” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu).” And if the lyrics have gotten more tender — “I love you deep when you come to my bed/ Doo doo wah/ I’m in really love with you” — it may be thanks to his collaboration with the singer/songwriter Kendra Foster, with whom he shares writing credits on much of the album.
Stylistically, the record picks up right where Voodoo left off, with whimsical love ballads sprinkled amongst raunchy funk romps, over 12 thoughtfully arranged tracks. He channels Sly Stone (even in the promotional imagery), kneels at the altar of Prince, and summons the spirit of J Dilla. For a record released digitally, in a compressed format, it’s incredibly textured. Questlove’s distinctive snare cracks through the fuzz, bass lines alternate between crunching through distorted amps and bouncing beneath more whimsical melodies.
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.