Black Messiah – D’Angelo and The Vangard (2014)

Black Messiah album cover
Black Messiah album cover

Like an early Christmas gift, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah arrived late in 2014, a few weeks earlier than originally planned. After nearly a year between recording session teases and a streaming pre-release the week before, Black Messiah landed near the top of the charts on its initial week. It was one of the rare moments when pent-up demand was met with exceeded expectations.

A lot had happened in the 14 or so years since Voodo topped the charts. D’Angelo’s well documented morph from abs to flab and personal troubles never sidelined him completely. Even as he retreated to his home in Richmond VA, he became a sought after contributor to other’s recordings. Still, much of his return would be delayed by a string of unfortunate events which included a friend’s death, a car accident and a trumped up drug charge. It seemed the savior of neo-soul would have to wait. The movement he helped define had moved on but there was still a void left by his absence.

The price you pay for starting an ab craze in the ghetto is that everyone notices how you’ve changed as you age. Observers were quick to note this about D’Angelo. But like a mature adult no longer needing to display his torso to get attention, D’Angelo moved the focus back to his music. His voice had lost nothing with the passage of time as the early preview of “Sugah Daddy” would prove. In fact his songwriting has improved with a sharp urgency about it.

In the time leading up to the release of Black Messiah, D’Angelo sought to gain control of every aspect of the album’s recording, even going so far as to play many of the instruments. Even in this modern age, so few artist take this approach, so it still seems like news. Few can do it as efficiently as Prince, which might explain the protracted recording time.

While Prince is no longer making the kind of music that impacts the charts, D’Angelo seems to have picked up where Voodo left off while bringing new Prince-like musical conventions with him. On occasion the psychedelic elements are seasoned with middle eastern sounds (“The Charade”) like the Prince era starting with Around the World in a Day.
In the process of paying homage to the past, D’Angelo he has become the new Prince in a way, making the kind of innovative fusion of funk, gospel and psychedelia like the Purple One once did. There’s even a Minneapolis connection in the form of guitarist Jessie Johnson in D’Angelo’s backing band The Vanguard. The Minneapolis sound is not the only influence as the album owes as much to Marvin Gaye or even the Isely Brothers for that matter.

For many, the album’s title could imply that D’Angelo himself might be the new black messiah of R&B.

His return could not be more timely as Black Messiah has a strong relevant message. The album deals with timely political and social issues, made more urgent by the events in Ferguson during the summer of 2014. The controversial court ruling even prompted an earlier release, apparently not effecting the quality of the songs or production.

The album’s opener “Ain’t That Easy” sets the tone with psychedelic funk sung with a falsetto that recalls both Prince and George Clinton. With beautiful Prince, Al Green and Marvin Gay overtones, the album’s closer “Another Life” sums up Black Messiah sonically.

When the album gets political as on “1000 Deaths” shades of old school rap appear with dialogue from the Rev. Louis Farrakhan. The intense sermon snipplet suggests many of the concerns urban blacks have with American religious symbolism gone wrong as a way to justify injustice. The song itself is a broader argument. The urgency of its beat and loudspeaker styled processed vocals recalls a live protest (perhaps Ferguson?).

The melodies and vocals are so strong, that whatever political or social messages that are implied are never allowed to get heavy-handed. In fact they almost become secondary. Strong hooks made from simple riffs sprinkle the album throughout. “Prayer” with its off tune synthesizer melody is both beautiful and funky thanks to ’80s style clap percussion.

The long wait was worth certainly it. Producers Alan Leeds and Kevin Liles worked closely with D’Angelo as well as guest artists like Questlove and Q-Tip to create easily one for the best soul albums in recent memory. Maybe even the best one in a decade. With a critically acclaimed comeback album behind him, D’Angelo’s tour supporting Black Messiah was called appropriately The Second Coming. Shirt on or off, it promises to be a spectacular event.

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