D’Angelo on ‘Saturday Night Live’: A Performance Both Timely and Timeless

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The first time I heard D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, my first reaction — beyond a certain gleeful incredulity about how good it was — was that it sounded like it could be a lost Curtis Mayfield record, one that would sit nicely in the great man’s discography between Roots and the Super Fly soundtrack. That’s not to say that it’s derivative, but that it’s a record that exists both within and outside of the era in which it was created — which is also an observation that you could make about D’Angelo’s masterful appearance on Saturday Night Live over the weekend.

Much of the attention has focused on his performance of “The Charade,” which he sang while wearing a black hoodie and standing in a white chalk body outline. The majority of his band sported “I CAN’T BREATHE” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER” shirts, which made the performance explicitly political (as if the lyrics didn’t do that already).

“The Charade” is a fascinating piece of work, and not just because it might be the most eloquent assessment of the current state of American race relations. It was clearly inspired by the events of last year — indeed, it was the aftermath of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson that apparently drove D’Angelo to finish a record that’s been in the works for the best part of a decade. “The Charade” is its most explicitly political song, reflecting on the ongoing exploitation and oppression of African Americans that’s characterized this country’s entire history.

But like the rest of the record, it doesn’t feel like a product of 2014 — it feels like it could have been made at any point between about 1972 and now. It basically ignores the influence of hip hop, relying instead on a sound that’s a hybrid of soul and funk, built around some truly filthy basslines and an air of group improvisation. Questlove, who drummed on the album, compared it to Sly Stone’s bleak masterpiece There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

So it went with the performance, which provided a stark juxtaposition of now and then, of flamboyance and stark minimalism. Look at D’Angelo’s guitar, for Chrissakes — it’s the sort of thing that you can see Bootsy Collins wielding if he ever decided to switch from four strings to six. His guitarist, Jesse Johnson, who you may know from The Time (now known as The Original 7ven), straddles these two eras — he’s a Prince protégé from way back, and Prince’s music has always been informed by the golden age of funk. But then, of course, there was the rest of the band, all clad in shirts that located the performance directly in 2015.

I’m not sure if this is what D’Angelo was going for, but the result was a sort of strange temporal disconnection, a performance that felt both beautifully retro and utterly contemporary. Like the record, his performance Saturday night was both timeless and timely, tying recent events in to a tradition of black cultural response to oppression that runs long and deep. The bitter lyrics to “The Charade” — “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ Instead we’ve only got outlined in chalk” — could well have been inspired by Ferguson, or Trayvon Martin, or Tamir Rice, or Eric Garner… but they could also have been inspired by Sean Bell, or Rodney King, or the Jackson State killings, or Fred Hampton, or Martin Luther King, or innumerable others. And ultimately, of course, that’s the point: as far as this society’s respect for black citizens goes, precisely nothing has changed since the 1970s.