Comprising a dozen tracks, "Black Messiah" was crafted by D'Angelo and his band, the Vanguard, and features collaborations with musicians including Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Roots drummer Questlove (best known as bandleader of "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon") and others. Writing in the album's liner notes, D'Angelo acknowledges that the title "is a hell of a name for an album" before stressing that he's not claiming to be a messiah himself. Rather, "We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah."
It's a political album, continues D'Angelo in the note, "about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen." Though not every song has a charged message, the artists writes that the title "creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest."
The timing couldn't be better; it's almost as if the artist was holding off delivering the record until the times demanded it. With unrest bubbling and the protests continuing, "Black Messiah" seems built as some sort of soundtrack.
How does it sound? On first listen, like a continuation of "Voodoo," a strange, surreal record that hits on mid-'70s Parliament and Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On," the tripped-out oeuvre of Betty Davis and a dose of Band of Gypsies-era Jimi Hendrix. At times it chugs like slowed-down Bad Brains, coupling distorted guitar with a heavy rhythm section. Loose handclaps abound, adding a hefty dose of human soul rather than relying on synthetics.
That looseness drives the record, as do easy structures that allow for quickie improvisations, strange four- and eight-bar diversions and an overall vibe of musicians making it work live in the studio. Pianos mingle with horns, acoustic drums trade tones with Hammond organ, men whistle in harmony.
Best of all — at least on a single Monday-morning listen — is the sense that D'Angelo released the album that obsessed fans of "Voodoo" were hoping for: a dynamic, soulful and smart album, one that not only grooves but has a weight to it.
The album is available at iTunes and other download services; if you want to listen immediately, it's also streaming at Spotify.