Review Summary: Your "Best Albums of 2014" list was made prematurely.
Christmas came early for music fans this year. After a fourteen-year hiatus, D’Angelo, the man with the most famous abs in album art history, unexpectedly released his LONG awaited third album, Black Messiah. D’Angelo is one of the most anomalous characters in the music world. In 1995, he released Brown Sugar, an album that catapulted neo-soul into the national spotlight and influencing a generation of future R&B musicians. He then waited five years, a lifetime in the world of music, before dropping his sophomore album, Voodoo, a magnum opus that defined the Soulquarians movement. Following Voodoo’s release, D’Angelo became increasingly disillusioned with fame and his status as a sex symbol, and decided to disappear, leaving fans longing for the day that their savior might finally return. If the five years between Brown Sugar and Voodoo felt like a lifetime, then the fourteen years between Voodoo and Black Messiah have felt like an eternity. But in the dead of night on December 15, 2014, with seemingly no warning, D’Angelo burst back onto the scene, sparking a blaze of ecstatic social media celebration. Any fears that fourteen years away from the studio might have dulled D’Angelo’s skills can be dismissed completely, because, with Black Messiah, neo-soul’s founding father has crafted another classic.
Sonically, Black Messiah is layered in grounded bass lines, old-school background harmonies, and D’Angelo’s signature hushed vocals. In fact, with its psychedelic funk overtones and political message, it’s distinctly reminiscent of a Sly Stone record. D’Angelo has never been one to worry about singles or radio play. Instead, he gives his music time to develop as you dissolve in his sea of glorious vibes. Most of the album’s tracks expand over five minutes as they strut confidently through chilled out grooves and woozy twists, elaborating on musical ideas with a jazz musician’s ear for discovery. The stylistic influences on this album are expansive. D’Angelo has always been partially indebted to Marvin Gaye, the original master of spacey bedroom jams. That tradition continues on tracks like “Really Love”, whose throwback soulfulness is complimented by the unexpected addition of flamenco guitar picking. “1000 Deaths”, with its heavy guitar riffs and piercing falsetto wailing, would sound right at home on a Prince and the Revolutions’ album. Shades of Funkadelic can be observed on the opening track, “Ain’t That Easy” (Kendra Foster, who co-wrote many songs on Black Messiah, is actually a frequent collaborator of George Clinton’s). D’Angelo even reveals his improvisatory vocal chops by laying down some scat lines on “Back to the Future (Part 1)”.
Black Messiah is easily the most politically charged of D’Angelo’s three albums. On the project’s written introduction, he explains the title, saying, “For me, the title is about all of us…It’s 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.” “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” laments the world’s deteriorating state, with lyrics like, “Question ain’t do we have the resources to rebuild / Do we have the will?” On “Prayer”, D’Angelo preaches the importance of spirituality when temptation and strife surround us. Not every song on the album is inherently political. Between the social commentary and conscious statements are some of D’Angelo’s loveliest soul ballads to date. “Betray My Heart” contains beautiful poetic lyricism, as he sings, “Like the breeze that blows in June / I will steady keep you cool / This I swear with all that’s true / I’ll take nothing in place of you”. The closing track, “Another Life”, with its buttery crooning, has the makings of a timeless slow-jam. Black Messiah’s pairing of social commentary with old-school romance is perfect. It’s as if D’Angelo is saying, yes, the world is ripe with turmoil and strife, but look between the lines, and you might just see that love shines through. The album’s message is universal, yet it couldn’t feel timelier. Black Messiah isn’t simply a neo-soul classic; it’s also the best album of D’Angelo’s career. Let’s just hope he doesn’t wait another fourteen years before he decided to top it.