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D'Angelo's 'Black Messiah,' and Why Waiting 14 Years For Music Isn't a Bad Thing
Imagine going to a steakhouse, ordering the best steak in the restaurant after being told the best steak will take an hour to properly cook, waiting impatiently as everyone around you gets their food before you, angrily wondering why YOUR steak has to take so damn long... and then finally getting your steak and sinking your teeth into the best thing you've probably ever tasted. Suddenly, that long wait didn't seem so long! That first taste is what I — and so many other music fans — felt on Sunday night (Dec. 14), when D’angelo released Black Messiah, his first album since 2000’s Voodoo. All it took was an electric guitar riff shambling into place a few seconds into "Ain't That Easy" to make me feel like a 14-year respite between albums was not that large of a gap — or, at least, that the wait was worth it.
Every day it gets easier to listen to new music, to stream a song and then move on to another for little to no charge. Over the past few years, the music industry has sped up to keep pace with growing accessibility and rapidly shrinking attention spans, increasing its volume of output to make up for fledging sales as bands work more quickly than ever to stay relevant. One Direction, one of the biggest acts in the world, just released its fourth album in four years. Rihanna was just as prolific between 2009 and 2012, and her current two-year recording break has felt like an eternity for it. It’s just not pop music, either: Atlanta rap trio Migos followed up No Label 2, a 95-minute mixtape released in February, with the 80-minute Rich N—a Timeline mixtape in November. In country, Kenny Chesney has released an album in each of the last three years. Rock music operates a little bit slower, but genre stars like Foo Fighters, Coldplay and the Black Keys can be depended upon for an album every two or three years. Even U2, who waited five years between 2009’s No Line on the Horizon and this year’s Songs of Innocence, made an album in between those two which was eventually scrapped.
To say that D’Angelo took longer than most is obviously an understatement. There’s a timeline on Vulture of what has happened in D'Angelo's life between Voodoo and Sunday night’s release, and it’s filled with a lot of rumored collaborations, release timelines, a few arrests, label shuffling, a car crash, a stint in rehab, a comeback tour and too many broken promises to wrap one’s head around. In a sense, it’s a sad read, especially considering the mainstream platform that Voodoo gave D’Angelo upon its release. Brown Sugar, D’s 1995 debut, is a formidable R&B record, but Voodoo represents a defining neo-soul release and singular masterpiece that was immediately hailed by critics as essential. The album transformed D’Angelo into an R&B touchstone, Grammy winner and video star, the latter thanks to the abdomen-unfurling clip to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” which was nominated for Video of the Year at the 2000 MTV VMAs alongside videos from *N SYNC, Eminem and Blink-182.
And then, 14 years of questions and well-documented struggle… but also of self-improvement and attempts to innovate. In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, the Roots’ Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson (a key cohort and contributor to Black Messiah) said of D’Angelo, “For the last 12 years, he's been strumming the guitar … He is so painfully shy about it. I think in his head, if he doesn't surpass Eddie Hazel, Santana, James Blood Ulmer and Frank Zappa as an axeman, he doesn't want to share it with the world.” D’Angelo had conquered so much with his first two albums, and over the past 14 years, he worked to top them — to join the greatest ever with an instrument that he wasn’t known for playing. There were leaked demos, half-finished tracks and live debuts, but in terms of an album, D’Angelo was not settling for anything less than perfect.
We think of 14 years as an impossibly long time between albums because of how often the average music artist releases an album. But why should we be tethered to the average, and (seemingly) only in this medium? No one hassles Terrence Malick for taking 20 years between film projects, or Jonathan Franzen for spending nine years finishing Freedom after The Corrections. And yet, because we idolize music stars more than directors and writers, we tend to demonize those who take forever, like Guns N’ Roses, Fiona Apple and My Bloody Valentine. I, too, have snickered at Dr. Dre’s Detox promises and Jay Electronica’s album details; today, I feel foolish for doing so. If a piece of music takes longer than usual to complete, why do we feel like that is a problem?
“This album is a testament to the idea of letting artists work at their own pace… Need to realize output isn’t the only goal,” music scribe Maura Johnston wrote on Twitter following the release of Black Messiah. Output can sometimes feel like the only goal because of the current economy of the music industry — more releases equal more profits, after all. But D’Angelo doesn’t care about that; it’s not as if Black Messiah is arriving on a wave of press hype and with a catchy radio single. He has spent over a decade hiding in the shadows, declining interviews and continuously tinkering on what would become his third album. He cares about saying the right thing, not just saying anything.
And Black Messiah is definitely the right thing to say at this moment. Not just because of the poignancy of a line like “All we wanted was a chance to talk/‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk” from “The Charade,” words uttered so soon after the Eric Garner decision and its resulting nationwide protests. Not just because D’Angelo sounds confident and comfortable, or because the production is something to get lost in for days. Black Messiah feels right — as in correct, precise and free of flaw — because it sounds honest about those 14 years it took to make. As much as he sounds the same as he ever has on Black Messiah, D’Angelo’s aesthetic is now that of a grown man (he’s 40 now, compared to 26 when Voodoo came out) who has experienced the world and stumbled in it, who still understands the allure of sex but fully grasps the potency of love. “If you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to,” he sings with a wink on “Back To The Future Part 1,” happily allowing his stomach to sag a bit after trying to overcome the image of the “Untitled” video for years. The decade and a half that Black Messiah took to make seeps into its very being, its DNA sparkling with the wisdom and mistakes of half a lifetime. The album inspires, because D’Angelo has seen some shit and lived to share his story.
What would a 2003 D’Angelo album — the one he apparently started working on in 2002 to follow Voodoo — have sounded like? We’ll never know, but the one thing we know for sure is that it wouldn’t have sounded like Black Messiah. D’Angelo’s artistry is a reminder that genius is never easily bottled, and often needs time to congeal. As much as we'd like to devour musical projects in a timely fashion, sometimes it's okay to let them cook.