How can you possibly encounter an album like this? The weight of expectations looms large, and it cuts two ways. Because you get music from D’Angelo so infrequently, anything he releases feels like a blessing. At the same time, everything must be measured against Voodoo, a dense, relentlessly groovy record which came out in 2000, managing to both spawn hits and please critics. Voodoo isn’t just the finest album of the neo-soul movement, it’s one of the landmark R&B records of the last two decades.
Few singers are as mercurial as D’Angelo, and few singers attract the same level of reverence. It’s hard to think of any artist whose release schedule has been more infrequent: the man has put out just two albums in close to 20 years. He released Brown Sugar in 1995, an album that mingled keyboard-driven soul with hip-hop’s powerful beats. After that, the singer holed up in New York City’s Electric Lady Studios for five years. Voodoo came out in January of 2000, and it stretched and expanded his palette — emphasizing guitar and horns courtesy of a loose-knit, funk-heavy band full of all-star players.
At the same time, D’Angelo submerged his voice, shrinking away from the powerful lead vocal that distinguishes the classic soul-men. Unlike Marvin Gaye, Al Green, or Luther Vandross, this artist favored layers of vocals stacked in subtle, unpredictable formations. Done correctly, this has a tantalizing, bewitching effect, and Voodoo’s influence is still rippling outward; you can hear it on Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Beyonce’s “Rocket,” and Jessie Ware’s “Kind Of… Sometimes… Maybe.”
In a way, these vocals also foreshadowed D’Angelo’s disappearance. The man never wanted to be out front on his records, so it’s not a surprise that he struggled with a world that wanted to put him on the top of R&B’s pyramid. The rest of the D’Angelo story has been well documented. He struggled with his new status as a sex symbol after the “Untitled” video. (A tough predicament to be sure, but a predicament that plagues every female performer every day, and they somehow manage to keep putting out albums.) He went into rehab. He got arrested. Questlove, who worked closely with the singer on Voodoo, continuously suggested that the album was close to done.
And now it’s done: Questlove debuted it at a listening session in New York City. People will write about the element of surprise in the album drop, but make no mistake — this has been a long time coming. D’Angelo did not “pull a Beyonce.” He finally put together an album that has been hinted at and rumored for years. Several of the songs have also appeared in his live sets over the last 18 months.
How long has he been working on this material? Questlove said that he had conversations with the singer about this album as soon as the Voodoo tour ended. On the other hand, according to D’Angelo’s management, at least one of the songs on Black Messiah was finished only recently. Apparently several finished songs didn’t make the final cut (hopefully it will take less than 15 years for those to surface). The rapper Q-Tip and Kendra Foster are frequently credited for helping D’Angelo with the lyrics; most of the songs are credited solely to D’Angelo.
Black Messiah is soul and funk pushed to its very limit, the sound of a singer squeezing and warping the tropes of R&B in his effort to wring every ounce of meaning from them. D’Angelo and Questlove are noted fans of the hip-hop producer J Dilla; Questlove has fondly described his beats as “drunk” on several occasions. It’s hard to imagine beats more intoxicated than those on Black Messiah. The drums land like gun shots, sharp, weighty, and staggered. The bass is full and heavy but always dexterous, reaching back to the work of soul and funk legends — except their bass lines were never as pronounced and in your face. The low end here is violent, a force to be reckoned with.
15 years will change a voice, and D’Angelo’s voice has shifted somewhat. When he sings a lone vocal line on Black Messiah, it’s tougher and scratchier than it once was — worn, satisfyingly ragged, not as young. But those inimitable clouds of backing vocals, warm and meticulously plotted, are still present, drifting pleasantly into the foreground and agreeably clogging the ears.
Before playing the album, Questlove emphasized D’Angelo’s political consciousness. The album’s lyric booklet alludes to Ferguson and climate change while drawing attention to one line in particular: “all we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk.” That’s especially poignant a day after demonstrations swept New York City in response to the recent grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner.
In conjunction with D’Angelo’s new political presentation, he brings some fiery, almost punky textures to his album. “1000 Deaths,” is the most cacophonous thing D’Angelo has ever done, with the singer coaxing a gnarled, gritty track back from the edge of ugliness. “The Charade” begins grimly, “crawling through a systematic maze to demise.” D’Angelo took up the guitar between Voodoo and Black Messiah, and he contributes many of the riffs on the new album.
Still, no matter how hard and pointy D’Angelo wants to be, he can never fully submerge his gift for melody. He’s a sonic innovator, pushing the percussion and the bass almost cruelly far apart. But he then fills that empty space with cascading volleys of soothing vocals, softening the bite of the drums and oozing over the rough edges of the guitar. At times, songs on Black Messiah sounded influenced by the sweetness of the Beatles; other moments, like the album closer “Another Life,” channel mid-80s Prince. (D’Angelo is an avowed Prince fan.) “Back In The Future” began with all the ruggedness of mid-90s New York hip-hop — particularly Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Pt. II” — before transitioning into wistful funk. And the lead single, “Really Love,” which will hit radio Monday morning, is light and lovely, with flamenco-tinged guitar and nonstop affirmations of affection.
“Really Love” sounds like nothing else on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts right now. D’Angelo left the game at the peak of his powers as one of the faces of a movement; he returns as a lone-wolf, a self-proclaimed outcast with a style all to himself. But he’s ready to start gathering new followers. In “Another Life,” he sings, “I just wanna take you with me, to secret rooms in the mansion of my mind/ shower you with all that you need.” Don’t turn him down.