It has been fourteen – fourteen – long years since D’Angelo last put out a record, but on Sunday, part three of his discography hit the internet in a fashion that was less of a resurfacing and more of a ‘second coming’. In short, it is incredible. With a sound drenched in funk, soul and r&b, hailing back to Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and with support from Questlove and Q-Tip, Black Messiah oozes out of the speakers and into your eardrums.
On the album sleeve, he insists that ‘not every song is politically charged’. ‘1000 Deaths’, on the other hand, is a politicised punch to the gut. Opening with the a fiery, lucid sample of a voice preaching Jesus’ blackness, D’Angelo’s lyrics in comparison, whilst not totally unintelligible, are almost drowned underneath a raging ocean of wailing, distorted guitar and crashes of cymbals. Initially it feels frustrating straining to distinguish words from each other, but then isn’t that the point? His voice is lost amongst sonic turmoil just as voices and lives are lost at the hands of institutionalised racism and brutality, and we should be frustrated, and we should be livid.
‘All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk’; although sonically far less compelling and abrasive than ‘1000 Deaths’, ‘The Charade’ still teems with a distinct lack of optimism. D’Angelo’s musings feel like worn out murmurs at an almost melancholic level. Despite being written before this summer, appearing in performances in 2012, this resentment feels all the more current; just as Marvin Gaye sang in 1971 ‘brother there’s far too many of you dying’, in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, the protests in Ferguson and New York that partly compelled D’Angelo to release the LP months earlier, this long history of injustice remains tragically too prominent today.
From the global to the personal, Black Messiah is D’Angelo at his most introspective and anxiously self-aware. Beyond its politics, its romance, its flirtation, are the struggles of an icon whose past fourteen years were characterised in the press by arrests and rehabilitation. In ‘Back to the Future (Part 1)’ he remarks ‘So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to’. It’s a confrontation with his post-Voodoo demons of sexualisation, the fear that his torso would begin to overshadow his music; the smouldering video of ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ seemed to incite a demand for his bare chest over his voice, and ultimately edged D’Angelo off of the stage and into the private. Yet the powerful strut of the guitar, the elated strings and the falsetto harmonies carry the confrontation with these demons without a sense of defeatism. There’s a feeling of renewed strength that makes the listener, too, feel empowered.
Nevertheless, the sultriness and seductiveness that characterised the artist’s earlier years remains, ‘Sugah Daddy’ and ‘Betray My Heart’ proving a prime example of this. They flutter with the very same charming, flirty groove of 2000’s ‘Playa Playa’ and ‘Left and Right’, a sound which is unmistakably D’Angelo’s, and a sound which remarkably feels as fresh now as it did in 1995’s Brown Sugar. Regardless of how bizarre it feels to switch immediately from the agonised ‘The Charade’ to ‘she needs a spankin’ just to shake her up’, it’s impressive how he encompasses such a wide span of issues – political, romantic, sexual, personal, spiritual, even environmental – without the album as its own entity feeling cluttered, fragmented or insincere. The consistent smooth and funky vibe form the backbone of the album – the warmth of the analogue production its flesh – drawing and holding everything together. Even at its most politically charged, D’Angelo never leaves you cold.
It would do Black Messiah no justice to place it under Voodoo’s shadow. It’s not the ‘tortured follow up to an album that cannot be topped’, in fact it’s far from it. Two years ago, in the wake of the Voodoo reissuing, Questlove summarised the void that D’Angelo’s absence had created: ‘he’s literally holding the oxygen supply that music lovers breathe … I’m like ‘look, dude, we’re starving.’ When D starts singing, all is right in the world’. Black Messiah is that oxygen.
Words: Josie JR Roberts