A Guide To Understanding D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’
So let’s get on with it. There are some inaudible parts to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Lucky for us we have a lyric booklet for those confusing times. Still D’s too-long-in-the-the-making album, the first release in nearly 15 years from the enigmatic soul man, crushes all expectations. This is a brazen, infectious, sneering, and at times vulnerable statement that avoids the disappointing pitfalls of another long-delayed pop music odyssey: Guns ‘N Roses’ 2008 Chinese Democracy. Where as Axl Rose seemed intent on proving to the world that he could soldier on without Slash and boys, Michael Eugene Archer embraces his time way and revels in his experiences (good and bad) and influences.
You know the constant snickering that met the seemingly unending news of D’Angelo’s follow-up to his Grammy-winning project Voodoo finally seeing the light of day? Or the collective side-eye that was projected when frequent collaborator and booster Questlove proclaimed that D, the church studied keyboardist, had become a gifted guitarist during his self-imposed exile after his battles with substance abuse and God knows what else? That’s all forgiven. Black Messiah doesn’t save R&B music. It gives it a good kick in the ass and reminds it how stripped down it can be. Here is VIBE’s breakdown of D’Angelo’s glorious return to the spotlight.
“Ain’t That Easy”
Eerie feedback. Distorted, otherworldly vocals. And then a nasty, loopy groove ensues. This is swampy funk aided by some sneaky guitar riffs. But what does the man himself have to say? D’Angelo opens up this delightfully obtuse, freaky mid-tempo cut with some baby-don’t-go pleas. “You need the comfort of my lovin’/To bring out the best in you,” he insist. “I hope that you do see what you’ve given me.” Is he talking to a brown eyed significant other or the fans that have grown weary of waiting for D’Angelo to deliver the goods? When the money chorus breaks in you are prompted to lean towards the latter: “You can’t leave me/It ain’t that easy to walk away…” The man may be right.
The track that has been described by behind-the-scene industry folks as D’Angelo’s nod to Jimi Hendrix’s early ’70s Band of Gypsies rock-n-funk assaults. But such a description is more on the surface. Yes, D’s guitar (we will get more into Mr. Archer’s surprisingly impressive ax display later) is turned up to distorted, loud-as-all-hell levels that would make the Voodoo Chile himself throw up the peace sign. However, there’s a lot taking place. Following a powerful opening clip of late, controversial black activist Khalid Muhammad preaching on Jesus’ turn as a black revolutionary, a pulsating beat, which sounds like it was unearthed from a J Dilla session, kicks off. D’Angelo’s vocals are almost beyond audible recognition, buried deep below the mix.
There are Prince-like freak-out screams, a little drug-induced Sly Stone essence thrown in, and a chaotic climax that explodes out of the speakers like a Jackson Pollock painting. But even with all of these influences the final result is pure D’Angelo. He is engaged in an epic battle: “I won’t nut up when we up thick in the crunch because a coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier only dies once…” Once the war is over the rhythm section falls back into a head-nodding pocket. This track may be too heavy for the Chris Brown fans to handle.
Introduced earlier this year in January on tour, “Charade” is the one song featured on Black Messiah that emphatically wears its influence on its sleeve. Hardcore Prince disciples will hear the sonic energy of the Purple One’s Parade era sound. A bit of soul and jazzy rock wrapped up in a moody energy that comes across as a hypnotic day dream. There’s even some Princely hand claps thrown in as D’Angelo shows off his much improved understated guitar skills over the Roots’ Questlove sublime percussive rush. One of several money cuts.
First unleashed on D’Angelo’s much talked about 2012 appearance on the BET Awards, the studio version surprisingly sounds more energetic than its initial muted live take. Horns punch in and out. The sunshine and funk throwdown is aided brilliantly by effortless bassist Pino Palladino while vocalist Kendra–who receives several co-writing credits on Black Messiah—and hip-hop icon Q-Tip, contribute to “Sugah Daddy’s” at times blue lyrics. This is a dance-friendly, nasty-as-he-wants-to-be romp that features some dynamic piano work from D’Angelo.
Fans of D’Angelo’s classic 1995 debut Brown Sugar will latch on to this soaring statement. Initially leaked in a more stripped down fashion, this enhanced version of “Really Love” receives some beautiful polish (Spanish guitar, gorgeous strings). “All night beside you I’d lay,” D croons in his heart-tugging falsetto. There is a reason why this track has been chosen as the album’s first single. It instantly pops.
“Back to the Future (Part 1)”
Another Dilla-esque groove that’s sparse, lean, and to the point. The funk here is strong and so is (again) D’Angelo’s blues and jazz guitar fills. He is miles ahead more confident on the ax and as a lyricist. D’Angelo admits to his own demons in an a-matter-of-fact, subtle way. “I used to get real high…but now I’m just getting a buzz…” he opens up of his long, well-documented battle with drug addiction. D’Angelo even offers up an answer to the tabloid chatter that he has lost his past chiseled Adonis figure after giving a shot-out to his struggling home-town of Richmond, Virginia. “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to.” Add in a killer bridge and you have the makings of a future concert staple that doubles as perhaps D’Angelo’s most personal statement. Bravo.
“Till It’s Done (Tutu)”
D’Angelo gets socially conscious. “Carbon pollution is heating up the air….Sons and Fathers die/Soldiers, daughters killed/Question ain’t do we have resources to rebuild/Do we have the will?” A stunning cut that keeps a heavy pace courtesy of Questlove. “Do we even know what we are fighting for?” D queries. Who knows. But if this is hell, at least we have some beautiful ear candy to listen to on our way down.
Spacey spiritual track. Dirty bassline pulls you in while the drums punch you in the face. D’Angelo isn’t so much preaching. He’s praying for redemption. Guitar solo goes in for the proverbial kill. No complaints.
“Betray My Heart”
Arguably the stand-out song on Black Messiah, “Betray My Heart” is a tight jazz excursion that separates D’Angelo from his rhythm and blues peers. A little bit of guitar great Wes Montgomery’s warm tone can be heard. Soaring harmonies display D’Angelo vocally at his peak powers. Peep the horn runs. Such no frills simplicity is rarely this big. Stunning stuff.
D’Angelo is a cheeky bastard. Here, he literally whistles the blues. He even plays a little slide guitar. It’s not everyday you hear a song that evokes Al Green, and Leon Redbone in one stroke. Very unexpected, indeed.
“Back in the Future (Part II)”
Easily Black Messiah’s weakest offering and that’s only because it’s a reprise of the backyard dance party romp featured on side A. Surely D’Angelo could have switched out this otherwise ass-shaking jam for another new composition. Yeah, we know. We are greedy sons of bitches.
The apex of baby making music, “Another Love” is both sensual and lush without ever having to lay it on too thick. You could imagine the mighty Stylistics all over this heavenly come-on. “I’m not surprised that angels compete for the chance to lay down at your feet,” D’Angelo purrs. This is his present to us. Better late than never.