D'Angelo and the Vanguard,
Before we begin, let's pull out our "Black Messiah review" bingo cards and make sure we hit all the big points so no one goes home unhappy:
- Eddie Hazel!
- “Beyonce”-style surprise release method!
- Passive-aggressive mention that acts like Kid Cudi, Radiohead, Skrillex, and others did the same style of surprise release method and never get credit for it!
- Sly and the Family Stone!
- Comparisons to Chinese Democracy!
- A vague Voodoo reference that inadvertently proves the writer has never actually listened to the record, only seen the “Untitled” video!
Oh what fun this business of criticism can be!
...Now that we've got that out of the way, let’s talk about Black Messiah.
D’Angelo, 40, hasn't released an album in 14 years. In his absence, he's become a legend, a tall tale, a story passed down through generations of fandom, where even a brief glimpse garnered loads of excitement. Look, he's on the Space Jam soundtrack! Is that him on a Snoop Dogg song? Holy crap, he's on the Mark Ronson album!
Now, after all these years: ladies and gentlemen, Black Messiah. Inspired by the nationwide outcry after the events that claimed the lives of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown (amongst others that deserve the same amount of outrage) the new D’Angelo album was released to the world late Sunday night, at the tail end of one of the most rhythmically challenged years in the history of popular music.
The album is a return to a style that hasn't been on the conscious of mainstream music since...well, Voodoo. For all the people who have been clamoring for something that rocks, or something funky, over the past few years, it’s telling how slack-jawed some of the responses have been to this album. You don’t know what you've got ’til it’s gone, indeed.
In many ways, Messiah is a celebration of the past. It's a direct descendant of the rhythm-driven, horn-accented soul that advocated the “sin on Saturday night, church on Sunday morning” mentality brought out of the deep South through the chitlin’ circuit by names like Ray Charles, Ike Turner, Nina Simone, and the great jazz and blues musicians of the era, recorded on analog tape and backed by 75-year-old drummer James Gadson. It’s exciting to see D’Angelo step out publicly as a bandleader (D’Angelo and the Vanguard is Prince and the Revolution is Sly and the Family Stone, forever and ever, amen). Hearing him bark instructions (“Horns!”) and keep everyone in the pocket left me cheering. The band itself is unfuckwithable, a lineup that includes Q-Tip, Funkadelic’s Kendra Foster, Questlove, John Blackwell, and bassist Pino Palladino. They manage to weave funk, jazz, the blues, and capital-R rock into D’Angelo’s frantic mix for a cohesive explosion. I want to buy them all ice cream.
Black Messiah is a celebration of the past.
After repeated listens, the word you’ll keep coming back to is “passionate.” On lead single “Sugah Daddy,” that passion comes from a woman who provides a kind of sex-hell, a sort of ruttin’ or hunchin’ that has more in common with a religious awakening than an awkward attempt at lovemaking churned out on an IKEA Malm bed. On “1000 Deaths,” that passion comes via an incendiary opening monolog from Khalid Abdul Muhammad (rap nerd trivia: That guy gets named-checked by Ice Cube on Scarface’s “Hand of the Dead Body”) and an overall examination of the tribulations and frustrations of black life in America.
“Back to the Future (Part I)" is the closest we get to a sit-down chat with the man. He’s happy to be here, hopes you aren’t tuning in to see him do his old “Untitled” dance, and laments for a time gone by. “Prayer” is sacred scripture, complete with church bells and a bassline that feels like holy week revival. The music is barely contained in the tape it’s recorded on, a sloppy pile of overdub, and the man himself seems lost in his own head, with mush-mouthed lyrics serving as support beams to the overall message built by the music.
Upon first listen, the music feels immediately familiar. (That could be because some of these songs, including the thick-as-gumbo opener “Ain't That Easy,” have been performed live since 2012.) It’s a D’Angelo record that sounds like a D’Angelo record that was frantically finished, an album wherein the creative and production staffs turned months of work into a release after a week and some change. For that reason alone, the album isn't the world-changing monolith that some would like you to believe it is. Rest easy, though: Black Messiah is a dynamite addition to the legacy of one of our greatest artists and the answer to a lot of people’s prayers.
Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. Follow him @ErnestWilkins.