Return of the King: Unraveling the Myth of D'Angelo
"If anyone is wondering what all the fuss is about this album, this artist, this moment, it's because they weren't around for his entry."
Image via Complex Original
Take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside/Let your days slip away come with me and ride…
. This is how Michael Eugene Archer starts his first album in 14 long and apprehensive years. This is how D'Angelo returns to your speakers, and it's incredibly apropos for Black Messiah, an album that's almost wholly fuzzy smoke and fogged mirrors. The instrumentation feels filtered through itself, sounding like analog narcosis for the cool kids in an unfinished basement while the popular crowd is busy doing digital synthetics at a chic hotel rooftop; the vocals are sieved into the mix through ragged, holey handkerchiefs; and the lyrics are reflections of portraits of the artist, the artist's own dysmorphia, and an eternal watcher observing both. It's as if D'Angelo is looking at us looking at him while he looks at himself.
And—despite the near unanimous declarations of transcendent greatness ascribed to this just-released album—we're all still trying to figure it all out, as if any of that matters. Because the true question (the only real question)—as he once famously asked— is: How does it feel? It feels good. It feels like home. It feels like hiraeth defeated. It feels as if Voodoo—his last album, which enraptured and befuddled us before becoming our comfort—was left somewhere, forgotten and untouched, only to be refurbished and continued. It's not a regression, or a rehash; it's a continuation. For many artists, picking up right where they've left off after a decade and a half of silence would be stagnation. But Black Messiah proves that D'Angelo was so far ahead that an artistic leap between projects was unnecessary. Maybe just some time. You can't leave me/ It ain't that easy… .
Releasing an album was the riskiest move D'Angelo could make: Despite the life dramas and rumors and mythos that have surrounded him during his industry exile— the conflicts and broken relationships, the drug addiction and alcoholism, the near-death accident and the prostitution arrest, the general dishevelment and weight gain—he didn't squander the good will in his music bank account, a la Lauryn Hill. He hadn't diminished his musical legacy with releases of diminishing returns. Had he never made another album, he would have died and left a good-looking corpse. At worst, he would have been an Elvis figure—acknowledged and recognized as Fat D'Angelo, but immortalized as a deep caramel figure of braids and lips and abs and sweat and muscles and sex. His biopic would have undoubtedly ended with him as he came to us—sleepy-eyed, in front of a piano, singing about brown sugar. If anyone is wondering what all the fuss is about this album, this artist, this moment, it's because they weren't around for his entry.
If anyone is wondering what all the fuss is about this album, this artist, this moment, it's because they weren't around for his entry.
His first album, 1995's Brown Sugar, birthed the entire "neo-soul" movement, which eventually became its own sub-genre of music. It's hard to remember what R&B was like before that album; it's scary to imagine what it would be today without it. Back then, the comparisons came slowly and deliberately—well thought out and cautious: Was he Prince? OK, he was Prince. Was he Marvin? OK, maybe he was Marvin. Was he more? Yes. He was more.
D'Angelo was more because he was undoubtedly one of the greats, with his multi-instrument-playing, self-producing, singing-songwriting ass. But he was also one of us. Dude was 21, and "Brown Sugar" was a song about weed and women and both—"Let me tell you about this girl, maybe I shouldn't/I met her in Philly, and her name was Brown Sugar/See we be making love constantly/That's why my eyes are a shade [of] blood burgundy." He was that dude that the ladies wanted to listen to that guys also wanted to listen to in equal measure. To put it crassly, if you didn't get laid to Brown Sugar in the mid-to-late '90s, it's because you weren't getting laid in the mid-to-late '90s. Hell, some of you reading this were probably conceived to that record. (Feel free to ask your parents, if that's not too weird for you.)
Even if he wasn't going by a mono-moniker, D'Angelo would have become one. Prince. Marvin. Stevie. Donnie. D'Angelo.
So much of this significance is lost today, as the death of cultural empire has left no R&B King. The last true King was R. Kelly, and he abdicated his throne by being an (alleged) pedophile. Today there is no true King, and the fragmentation of entertainment choices to a streaming, a la carte playlist, on-demand world means that such an era is gone, most likely to never return. Even Usher—for all his talent and mega-success—was not able to ascend to the R&B throne, and he's seen his strengths chipped away and replaced by newer, younger versions of himself—Chris Brown became the go-to dancer, Ne-Yo the voice, Trey Songz the one the ladies want to see with his shirt off. But with D'Angelo, there was D'Angelo and everyone else. Yes, there was Maxwell—undeniably, assuredly, definitely Maxwell—but Maxwell was, in part, what defined D'Angelo's greatness. As there were the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, Nas and Jay Z, Biggie and 2Pac, there was Maxwell. And whom you crowned at the time was a matter of personal choice—but in time, the output and legacy (and the unfinishedness of it all) usually swung one way. (Or became fodder for unending debate.)
In this sense, D'Angelo is a return to a bygone time. D'Angelo—by that nature of the world and the needs of the human mind, by his own choices and scarcity—became King. He became Legend.
Usually when Legends return from absence, it doesn't go well. Usually, there's some hagiography, some nostalgic reverence—rarely is there intrinsic accomplishment. But Black Messiah is not only accomplishment; it's a promise fulfilled and a birth of more promise.
I want to give you somethin' to feed your mind….
The lyrics breaking this meditation of Black Messiah all come from the song's opening number, "Ain't That Easy"—mainly because it's tempting to see that song as a microcosm of the album. It's us looking at him while he looks at himself. D'Angelo sings, "You need the comfort of my love/To bring out the best in you." It's easy to take it as haughtiness, but by song's end the sentiment is inverted and he's looking at us. "I tell you this sincerely/I need the comfort of your love/To bring out the best in me." It's co-dependency at its most functional, and it's some real King shit.
Black Messiah—much like the struggles that defined and fueled its creator's absence—is an album of opposing forces. Angry and contrapuntal, desperate and languid, unsure and quiet, defiant and loud (and sometimes all of those things at once in one song), it's a musical fugue emerging from a psychological one.
On "1000 Deaths," D'Angelo confesses "I can't believe I can't get over my fear," and we can't even be sure that he has. The song itself, despite an official lyric booklet, seems destined to be the birth of a thousand #misheardlyrics. More than most songs on this album, it's like a bad cell phone connection where the conversation on the other end is dropping out and refracted, but you say nothing because you know something important is being said; where it feels like these thoughts have been simmering and foaming, brewing and bubbling for a long time and you just listen, knowing that even if you don't get it, you get it. Maybe D'Angelo is scared to put his voice in front of his art. Or maybe he just wants you to...
Shut your mouth off and focus on what you feel inside….
Black Messiah is perfectly messy rumination about the politics of self-love, the disaster of expectation, the purpose of revolution, and a whole lot more that it's still way too early to parse. Though years—years—in the making, it was reportedly put together in the past few weeks, via all-night crafting and packaging sessions, in a response to the national climate of social unrest. According to his own (quickly assembled) promotional material, "It's about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen."
D'Angelo doesn't seem to want to be the message or the messenger. Maybe he's tired of looking at himself; maybe he's tired of us looking at him; maybe he's tired of looking at us looking at him. "For me, the title is about all of us," he writes. "It's about the world. It's about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah. It's not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them."
The delivery of this mission is perhaps best exemplified on the album's third number, "The Charade." (And, to be fair, up to this point, we've only spoken about the Black Messiah's first two songs, because the album is that dense and full of meaning and answers full of questions.) On "The Charade," D'Angelo is more classic-era Prince than he's ever been. Funky and indecipherable, but full of tangible fury and sex, he sings, "Degradation so loud that you can't hear the sound of our cries/All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road, which we will lay on/Inundated by media, virtual mind fucks in streams."
What does it mean? No one can be sure. Maybe not even D'Angelo. But, How does it feel?
It feels like the return of a King.
kris ex is a writer living in L.A. Follow him @fullmetallotus.