D’Angelo’s last album, Voodoo, was released five days after Bill Clinton left office in January of 2000. He was 25 at the time and now he’ll soon turn 41. In the nearly 15 years that have passed since the release, it’s been easy to forget that D’Angelo’s sophomore album was long-in-the-making, delayed, and a bit mythical itself. NYU Professor and cultural critic Jason King wrote retrospective liner notes for a much-deserved vinyl reissue of the album in 2012, and in the more than 8000-word piece he paints D’Angelo as a sort of hermit—“distracted by weed and weightlifting”—in between those first and second albums. The pressure of a follow-up to the debut, Brown Sugar, which was released in 1995, clearly mired D’Angelo through the late ‘90s, but it also seemed to test and perfect Voodoo, an album that has endured more obviously as his bona fide modern classic.
After its release, D’Angelo retreated again and whispers of new music came and went for more than a decade. He also suffered himself through a host of troubles unrelated to music, including an arrest in 2005 for drunk driving—he was high on cocaine as well—and marijuana possession, despite two stints in rehab that preceded the incident. And then, after glimpses both good and bad, in 2012, D’Angelo suddenly emerged for a string of performances, first in Europe and then in the U.S. At a Philadelphia performance with ?uestlove last year, the singer himself hardly spoke. The Roots bandleader—one of the most notable albeit informal spokespersons D’Angelo has—introduced him and then proceeded to narrate much of the show as the real main act remained slumped in front of a keyboard and microphone in between songs. At a performance in Brooklyn earlier in the same year, ?uestlove reportedly said, “Let him know that he’s loved,” as if he truly didn’t know, and, “If y’all don’t make noise, you’re going to be waiting ’til 2042.”
News that Black Messiah was not only years in progress but a last-minute rush effort accompanied its release, and the urgency this time was apparently sparked in part by D’Angelo’s reaction to a Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the killing of unarmed Black teen Michael Brown. In that way the surprise release was more than a marketing convenience, and the revelation has already helped shape the record’s narrative. The album itself isn’t a sustained reaction or purely a vehicle for commentary from D’Angelo but specific tracks are, and more generally it’s a statement that he wants to be heard now.
The issue of the album’s title, which could be passed off as a grandiose, hopefully fulfilling bit of self-prophecy, is instead anchored by artwork that for the first time in a career doesn’t feature D’Angelo himself (The picture of raised Black hands that graces the album’s cover holds a special significance in 2014 and the particular image was captured at Afropunk’s annual concert last year). For Voodoo he appeared shirtless and then shortly after stood naked in a bigger-than-the-album video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel?).” The launch into sex symbol status didn’t seem to fit D’Angelo’s artistic mission or personality, and in retrospect it seems like an accidental blunder according to a few years old Spin feature. “You’ve got to realize, he’d never looked like that before in his life,” D’Angelo’s trainer, Mark Jenkins said in 2008. “To be somebody who was so introverted, and then, in a matter of three or four months, to be so ripped — everything was happening so quickly.” On a song on this album, ”Back To The Future (Part 1),” D’Angelo makes light of the attention he no longer wants simply and cleverly: “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to,” he sings.
The new album’s recording was committedly retro and analog and like Voodoo, Black Messiah was cut directly to two-inch tape. The sound is earthy, both warm and soft even when it’s gritty, and you can hear a hushed static in the silent moments at the beginning or end of many of the songs. Musically though it’s never straight-ahead nostalgia. “1000 Deaths,” the second track, drones on with a constantly double-time bassline at the center of a busy, psych-y production. It’s the album’s grungiest moment and a fast introduction to a new guitar/bass centered funk-rock from D’Angelo. The next song, “The Charade,” is the most politically poignant, both lyrically timeless and depressingly present: “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk.” The music betrays the tone of the lyrics though; a glimmering lead guitar line is simply pleasant and the general feel is soft and upbeat.
The next song has all the workings and moving pieces of the album’s trademark, but an outrightly sweet melody, shared on both the flamenco-tinged guitar and the lead vocals, carries “Really Love,” a lullaby to a lover. Even with its distinctive layers—an acoustic bass, a heavy clap that grounds the rhythm in the center, swooping strings—it stands utterly apart from a song like “Sugah Daddy,” which is more of an intersection between D’Angelo’s Sly Stone and Prince fascinations. That song was written with help from Q-Tip and the apparently pivotal pen of Kendra Foster, a Parliament/Funkadelic and George Clinton collaborator whose name is credited several times. “Sugah Daddy” was also one of the first peeks at the album as D’Angelo had performed the track in 2012 at the BET Awards. The song is the approachable pick of the bunch to a Voodoo-stuck fan and certain lines are pure raunch without being exaggerated thanks to his constantly moving, sometimes mumbling delivery.
The second half of the album jumps from “Betray My Heart,” the most straight-ahead Jazz offering, to the casual jam of “Back To The Future (Part II).” With “The Door,” a song in which D’Angelo warns a lover, “Don’t lock yourself out that door” after singing, “You wasn’t very nice,” he has reached Randy Newman levels of simplicity in short melody, and the immediate predictability of the lead whistling and other sounds is comforting, not off-putting. “Another Life,” the closer, is a drowsy bit of feverish infatuation by comparison, a loose groove held together in the name of the sensual ode.
Together the album is well contained and doesn’t jump around carelessly, but it moves to different places and resists a single thread or sound as D’Angelo does genres. Earlier this year he shrugged off the “neo-soul” label in a RBMA interview with Nelson George, saying, “Anytime you put a name on something, you just put it in a box.” The apprehension toward the term is justified and fits his character, even if the name was originally meant to describe exactly that reluctance in him towards being boxed in. Black Messiah is ambitious and adventurous, and in that way it delivers wholly on the promise of D’Angelo as an artist. In another way it’s new and different for him, the sound is heavier and grittier in places, and more simple and sweeter in others. After so many years, that unwillingness to settle into the same groove is part and parcel to the D’Angelo we’ve all been waiting for. There’s a comfort in not having to worry about more new music for now. There will be years spent with Black Messiah; it deserves the time to grow. And rise.