Review: D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ draws on history, sublime grooves
In a brief forward in the liner notes for “Black Messiah,” the great new album from the soul artist known simply as D’Angelo, the creator declares his intentions with a dose of humility.
“‘Black Messiah’ is a hell of a name for an album,” he writes, explaining that the title of his first long-player in 14 years, and only his third in 19 years, might be misconstrued as being about religion or paint the artist as some sort of egomaniac.
But, writes D’Angelo, to him the title is “about the world. It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah. It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.”
Though few whites are likely to publicly declare themselves “black messiahs” any time soon, the point’s well taken, made even more so by the arrival of this rhythmic, impatient music. Twelve rubbery tracks that hit the sweet spot connecting soul, funk, R&B and jazz, the record delivers a series of serious grooves so effective and labyrinthine as to seem somehow above reproach. If they don’t move you, blame not the music but yourself.
“Black Messiah” arrives as if by design, the musical reaction to a long, hot year as though the work was recorded not over the past decade but the past month. Not all the songs on the hourlong work are politically charged. But the title nonetheless “creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest,” says the artist.
D’Angelo (born Michael Archer), 40, earned attention for his 1995 debut, “Brown Sugar,” but undying love through “Voodoo.” That devotion made the silent decade that followed particularly frustrating. By the mid- and late ‘00s, the artist had stopped performing. He returned to the stage in 2012, including a thrilling set at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. He introduced new work and teased new music. For the two years after, there was relative silence. That ended with the surprise release of “Black Messiah” on Sunday.
His new musical landscape is filled with unflinching details — “All we wanted was a chance to talk/Instead we only got outlined in chalk,” he sings on “The Charade” — offered with nuance, with vivid, immediately memorable riffs. Rife with the kind of sublimely loose grooves achievable only through instrumental precision, “Black Messiah” is as vital as it is sublime.
It explores war and life in “1000 Deaths,” addiction in “Back to the Future (Part I)” and its late-record conclusion, “Back to the Future (Part II).” “Till It’s Done (TUTU)” ponders big questions with a falsetto as assured as Rev. Al Green’s: “Where do we belong? Where do we come from?”
Like his earlier albums, “Black Messiah” devotes equal time to the politics of love and sex. And like his early records, it’s filled with real-life musicians and not software and hard drives. “Ain’t That Easy,” which opens the record with a transfixing groove, draws sweat from the get-go. The first riff, slow and buttery, arrives like a long-gone lover swaggering up the sidewalk — same gait, same vibe, but with bright new shine in her eyes.
The band, featuring artists including bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Questlove and with arrangements by Roy Hargrove, moves with a kind of drunken fluidity, conveying a wild confidence that plays fast and loose with the beats. This weird, unsteady wobble defines the album.
D’Angelo’s self-described landscape is filled with as many subtle allusions to politics as it is with overt indictments. “Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked / Revealing at the end of the day, the charade,” he sings in “The Charade.” “Till It’s Done” samples a speech from a documentary about the late Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, who was killed in 1969 by Chicago police. “Really Love” samples Curtis Mayfield’s “We the People Who are Darker Than Blue,” itself a heavy indictment of both the system and its perceived victims.
In drawing on history, “Black Messiah” feels part of a continuum, an urgent missive in a conversation that has resided on the periphery of popular music for decades. Like this one, the best “political” albums are the most understated, offering the essence of the issues without sermonizing, delving into both private and public politics.
Rage Against the Machine’s best work was a reaction to the times delivered with bombast. Ditto the Clash, whose most outspoken rants addressed global issues rather than those of the neighborhoods far from home. More effective is the work of Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone, the Roots and others, acts that have weaved politics through music to illuminate darkened corners with indignant whispers.
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