Few of us saw this coming.
After over a decade of false starts, unsubstantiated promises, and seemingly endless teasing and taunting by colleague Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, Michael Eugene Archer – better known to us as D’Angelo – returned seemingly overnight with a new album, and much of the music-listening world went collectively bonkers. Over the 14 years since D’Angelo dropped Voodoo, the man seemed to struggle with demons aplenty; from drug addiction, a solicitation arrest, a life-threatening car accident and the unrelenting demand and desire from fans to deliver new work, the task of creating a follow-up seemed Herculean in execution.
After literally stripping himself bare in the video for his highest-charting single and on the cover of what has become one of the most revered albums in modern R’n’B, D’Angelo became a recluse. A few sporadic compilation tracks or guest spots on peers’ albums aside, we were left gnawing on the bones of his tiny discography, salivating at promises continually dangled in front of fans by folks like Questlove, who played a substantial role in Voodoo’s creation and completion, and who became the closest thing D’Angelo had to an official spokesman. The album seemed to be joining the ranks of long-anticipated albums left unfinished in the shadows of the growing hype and speculation surrounding its release.
Yet here it is, no longer called James River as was long speculated, but instead given the considerably heavier title Black Messiah, billed to D’Angelo And The Vanguard, and rush-released in the wake of massive social unrest and protest demonstrations in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco last weekend amidst an aggressive spike in racial profiling, police brutality, and the deaths of citizens at the hands of the law. Questlove’s repeated claims that D’s new opus would be of a piece with American protest-pop statements like Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On, Miles Davis’s On The Corner, and The Beach Boys’ SMiLE suddenly seemed a hell of a lot more plausible.
While Black Messiah is an astonishing, disorienting album of densely psychedelic drunken funk, jazz-inflected blues vamps, and repentant gospel lamentations, it’s not quite the grand sociopolitical statement the marketing campaign has led us to believe, though a number of its songs do feature lyrics of empowerment and strength in the face of struggle. If anything, Black Messiah is an album about D’Angelo’s own fight with his inner demons, a collection of songs offered to listeners as a balm to aid their own struggles and frustrations.
It’s about coming to terms with the sexual objectification he received as a performer after the success of ‘Untitled’ (and seeing things from a female point of view more than ever before), about the increasing unrest surrounding him after Occupy Wall Street, the Millions Marches, and the murder of Trayvon Martin, and significantly, about how much the R’n’B landscape changed during his time in the shadows. While rap and contemporary soul music have come to own a fair share of the charts, even more so than during Voodoo’s time in the spotlight, the neon-hued lockstep textures of the pop world and even the underground are a far cry from the loose-limbed neo-soul he helped pioneer in the ’90s. He’s also now battling with a back-to-basics rockist mentality where scruffy, downhome blues-rock revisionists like Jack White and the Black Keys are selling records to both children and parents alike. Where does that leave D?
It leaves him, essentially, back where he began, reacting to slick pop shine and soulless Caucasian rock everymen, drawing inspiration heavily from pioneers who fused those who came before into lumpy, fuzzy, fiery mutant hybrids which provide the blueprint for much of Black Messiah’s sound. Sly Stone and Eddie Hazel-era Funkadelic loom large over the album’s opening salvo (cleverly emphasized in both the sleeve art’s clear proclamations of “Side A” and “Side B” and the added samples of a turntable needle lifting and dropping between the two sides), where knotted clusters of barbed-wire fuzz riffs, thick bass pulsations, and deep-voiced doo-wop harmonies launch a full-scale attack.
This is most prominent on standout ‘1000 Deaths’, one of the James River tracks to get an unfinished leak a few years back. Here it provides the gnarliest, most confrontational assault, which nods to On The Corner but comes off more like Davis’s slept-on ‘Rated X’, a nervous, skittering burst of noisefunk that was one of the last straws for longtime Davis fans. ‘Deaths’ opens with excerpts of dialogue from a documentary about the murder of 21-year-old Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton by Chicago police in 1969, and channels that outrage via the album’s most impenetrable production; adrenalized, lopsided funk breaks anchor layer upon layer of percussive bass distortion, droning organ, and some chunky guitar discordance.
Davis’s Get Up With It (which is comprised predominantly of On The Corner-era outtakes, and includes ‘Rated X’) is a clear forefather to Black Messiah, as is Prince circa 1986’s Parade, whose smooth Technicolor purple vapors wafted through majestic European psychedelia and funk landscapes. Prince’s shadow looms large over Black Messiah’s sound for good reason – one of the members of The Vanguard (itself a seemingly obvious nod to Prince’s band The Revolution) is Jesse Johnson, former guitarist in The Time, and the album’s orchestral arrangements were handled by noted composer Brent Fischer, whose father Clare handled the arrangements for Parade in ’86.
‘The Charade’, which features one of most heavily-quoted lyrics used in the album’s street campaign (“All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk”) glides on a slow-burn psychedelic throb accented by warbling keyboard patches, puffs of sitar smoke, and an elevating choral refrain; its vibe is so much like a Parade outtake that it’s worth noting that the first bootleg of Parade demos was originally released as an LP with the title of – you guessed it – Charade. ‘Really Love’ features a breathtaking slow orchestral groove with lovely arrangements by Fischer, all swooning strings, Spanish guitar, harp glissandi, and D’Angelo crooning in a multi-tracked falsetto that’s the closest thing to a baby-making jam you’re going to get on this album. It’s stunning, but curiously preceded by a song that ends with a lyric about vaginal flatulence (“I hit it so I made the pussy fart”).
‘Sugah Daddy’ was leaked a day prior to the album’s release, and it was a curious choice for a teaser– it’s the one song closest in sound and spirit to Voodoo, coming off like an expanded rework of that album’s ‘Chicken Grease’, with a minimal snap’n’clap Southern vamp bounce, some gospel piano, and echo-chamber horns by Roy Hargrove. It also happens to feature some of D’Angelo’s most unintelligible vocals; you’d be hard-pressed, in fact, to understand most of what he is singing about on the album without the aid of a lyric sheet, as he’s mixed low and deep into the heart of the noise The Vanguard stirs up. While at times that sonic frustration works rather effectively in the context of the song’s energy, it’s on songs like ‘Daddy’, where D’Angelo describes his lust for a well-to-do young heartbreaker, that the frustration comes from an entirely different place; the startling contrast between “Sugah Daddy” and “Really Love” demonstrates the conflict in D’Angelo’s quest for redemption perhaps more clearly than any other cuts on the album – save for one.
It’s on centerpiece ‘Back To The Future Pt I’ where D’Angelo most successfully fuses both halves of the album’s emotional dichotomy together. It directly addresses the personal conflicts of his wilderness years, speaking to those who showed more concern for his body than his state of mind, while the song’s bittersweet refrain (“I just wanna go back, baby / Back to the way it was / I used to get real high / Now I’m just gettin’ a buzz”) is more double-edged than any other statement on the album – things weren’t better, just less shitty, not only for him but for everyone. The darkness that flows through Black Messiah fuels a cynicism that, were it not countered by a bit of light-hearted (and at times questionable) release, would be suffocating.
That, more than anything, is Black Messiah’s greatest triumph – we collectively temper the unceasing information feeds pumping out news of racism, bigotry, thievery, corporate corruption, and environmental destruction with rapid-fire bursts of the lightest entertainment we can conjure, from vapid listicles to photos of animals dressed as people to videos of candid schadenfreude failures. D’Angelo captures those conflicting energies vividly throughout, disrupting smooth, head-nodding rhythms with blasts of guitar noise and back-masked overdubs, or breaking through the cloudy layers of the production with soaring vocal clouds and taking the dark energies of Sly’s Riot… and sculpting them into a vernacular that’s not exactly alien, yet still remains a foreign presence in the context of popular tastes at large.
The album’s muddy frustration is one of the most fitting and on-point representations of what many who are hearing this music are likely feeling on a daily basis, asserting that we need to work on ourselves before we can take care of anyone else, for better or worse. That’s one of the most powerful realizations a human can make. Black Messiah’s mission statement, its cover art (a moment of collective solidarity captured at the famed Afropunk Festival), and its complex web of emotion and sound make for one of the most confounding yet gripping albums made in 2014; while it isn’t without its flaws, it captures the zeitgeist in a way that few other albums have managed this year, and has both revelers and detractors speaking passionately. We aren’t exactly left with answers, but rather asking more questions, and more calls for artists to rise up and speak out. Who’s going to be next?