2014 saw a couple of great “hell-freezes-over” moments in music. In the folk realm, Ireland’s Damien Rice reappeared after 8 years with an incredible third LP and Yusuf Islam finally conceded that his legacy would always be remembered by the name Cat Stevens. In elecronica, Thom Yorke stuck it to the man by unleashing Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes on the world via BitTorrent and the nation of Sweden collectively flexed their soul-inspired dance muscles with stellar releases by Robyn and Gothenburg’s Little Dragon just to name a couple. But this week something really magical happened. After 14 years of false alarms, personal trials and tribulations and an intimidating level of hype from fans and peers alike, the one and only D’Angelo (with his new band The Vanguard in tow) nonchalantly dropped Black Messiah – possibly the most hotly anticipated release of the last two decades. With promises of its arrival stretching back to 2005 and earlier, it’s been the Chinese Democracy of Neo-Soul but unlike that infamous Guns ‘n’ Roses fizzer, Black Messiah completely and utterly justifies the wait.
There’s little contest that 2000’s Voodoo is something of a landmark album in soul music. With this modern classic (as drummer/producer/professional-music-nerd Questlove notoriously stated at the time) D’Angelo “out-Prince-ed Prince” and Voodoo is to this day widely recognized as one of the sexiest records of all time. While that iconic brand of sticky, bloodshot funk is still alive and well on Black Messiah, it seems that over the last 14 years, D’s life (not unlike the music industry at large) has gone through enough ups and downs to transcend and give birth to a truly remarkable work of art. Let’s call it the Sgt. Pepper of funk and dive in, shall we?
Opening with the squelchy bounce of Ain’t That Easy – anchored by the incongruously funky input of lanky Welsh bass player Pino Palladino – that lush wall of harmony for which D’Angelo is adored the world over is well and truly back and from track one, Black Messiah proves to be the triumphant, if long overdue return to form it was always going to be. Next up is 1000 Deaths which is more than the gritty, low-down riff-fest it may superficially seem; it’s a coded explanation as to why this record (with such a politically charged title) was released at this point in history. At a time when the racial tension in Missouri has bled outwards and made the entire world slightly more aware of the insidious inequalities that are still part of African-American life, it almost seems as though D’Angelo may have just been patiently waiting for a much-needed cultural revolution to provide an appropriate context for a record as impactful as Black Messiah.
The sensual, muted rock of The Charade once again sees D’Angelo confidently stare any of Prince’s best records dead in the eye and challenge them to an equally matched duel before the mangled trumpets of Voodoo cohort Roy Hargrove (The R.H. Factor) add a fascinating layer of complexity to Sugah Daddy’s visceral and hypnotic groove. It’s by this point in the record that you’ve humbly conceded that D’Angelo has already lived up to the impossible expectations foisted upon him since Voodoo, but then he throws you for a total loop…
Full disclosure: So touched was this reviewer upon first hearing the haunting strings that usher in the jaw-dropping flamenco guitar of Really Love, that unexpected yet completely unabashed tears sprang from his face. That’s how powerful this record is. The song slinks along with the unparalleled effortlessness that you’d expect, but hot damn! Dem strings D! Rounding out the first half is the straight-up carnal P-Funk groove of Back To the Future (Part I) which showcases his freshly honed and deliciously tasteful rhythm guitar work perfectly. The fluid backbeat of Til It’s Done (Tutu) locks down the understated guitar fireworks going off left and right and the soul-searching sass in D’s vocal could never have come from anyone else.
With one foot planted firmly in the corporal and one in the spiritual, the filthy wah-guitar and rubbery bass of The Prayer ooze with the post-coital haziness that endeared Voodoo to so many yet simultaneously, the song is a deeply philosophical affirmation of faith and yet another testament to D’Angelo’s otherworldly artistry. Betray My Heart’s energetic bebop funk reminds you just how formidable his jazz chops are (lest we forget, a mere 4 tracks ago he was playing Spanish guitar like he’d done so all his life) and its relatively bare-boned arrangement in comparison to the rest of the album plays to his lauded vocal-layering immaculately.
By now you might be smugly thinking that he can’t throw another curved ball, right? Incorrect. The wistful Memphis-inspired, southern-fried country-soul of The Door sounds positively absurd for D’Angelo in theory, but the Delta-slide guitar solo has the legitimacy of hundreds of years of black music behind it and it’s almost alarming how appropriate and well-executed it comes together. After revisiting one of the album’s deepest grooves on Back To the Future (Part II) with all manner of reversed guitars and randy howls, Black Messiah draws to a climactic and soulful close with the gospel piano and soaring vocal histrionics of Another Life. It’s such a compelling and potent ending to the album that thousands of people feared may never come.
To wrap up, Black Messiah is one of those generation-defining records that – like Voodoo – should probably only come along once every 14 years. If records like this came any more frequently, many a perfectly capable career-musician would throw their hands in the air in capitulation because this is sheer perfection. Bending genre after genre to fit their will track after track is no mean feat for any artist, but a special place in music’s history must be reserved for people like D’Angelo who do so with such apparent ease – even if he takes his sweet-ass time in doing so. If there was a 5 ½ star option, you’d better believe Black Messiah would be getting it…