After 14 years without a full-length album, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah was released on Sunday Dec. 14th.
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.
D’Angelo’s 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. 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. Questlove has since debuted it at a listening session in New York City.
And now it’s done. 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.
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.
“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.