Album Review: D’Angelo—“Black Messiah”

By James Li

Music fans and music writers can be fickle and impatient creatures. I’ll be the first to say that I’m guilty of thriving on hype, getting bored of old favourites, and listing my favourite music of the year before the year even finishes. That’s why I need albums like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, his first album in nearly fifteen years, to remind me that good things come to those who wait.

Last year, Beyoncé dropped her self-titled album unannounced at the end of December, as a subtle “fuck you” to everyone who already decided what their favourite music of 2013 was. 2013 was also the year that My Bloody Valentine released m b v, their first album in 22 years, out of the blue. In that respect, Black Messiah is both this year’s Beyoncé and m b v. Here’s how short the hype cycle was for this album: on Friday, D’Angelo released a fifteen-second trailer. On Saturday, he released the single “Sugah Daddy.” And on the third day, the Black Messiah rose again, hitting iTunes and Spotify.

But a three day hype cycle is an instant compared to the fifteen years people have been waiting for D’Angelo’s third album. Of course, I’m only 21, so the sensation that is Michael “D’Angelo” Archer is before my time, and probably before the average Demo reader’s too. Let’s put it this way: in his heyday, critics placed D’Angelo among the ranks of all-time R&B greats like Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and James Brown, and those comparisons didn’t sound hyperbolic at all. His first two albums, Brown Sugar and Voodoo, kicked off a neo-soul renaissance – think Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill.

So why the fifteen-year wait? Well, anyone who has seen Voodoo’s album cover will notice D’Angelo’s washboard abs. And that was exactly the problem. D’Angelo’s status as a sex symbol began to overshadow his reputation as an artist. In an interview with GQ, D’Angelo recalled a concert where a female fan threw money at him on stage. The stress from being sexually objectified caused him to turn to alcohol and cocaine. His weight ballooned to nearly 300 pounds. He got arrested for drug possession and a DUI.

Album art for Black Messiah

Album art for Black Messiah

That’s why Black Messiah’s release feels like a triumph, considering the personal hurdles D’Angelo had to jump to get here. But the wait is over, and Black Messiah greatly awards our patience with its measured and traditionalist take on R&B. Just like Voodoo, Black Messiah is free of digital recording, entirely recorded on two-inch tape. It also features contributions from the two coolest cats in hip hop: Q-Tip and Questlove. With his languid guitar playing, D’Angelo is more attuned with R&B touchstones like Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone than pretty much anyone making R&B today, but he also breaks out more eclectic instruments too – strings on “Really Love,” slide guitar on “The Door,” and sitar on “Another Life,” for example.

Even as D’Angelo takes things slow, his anger bubbles under the surface of Black Messiah. The album title is religious, but it isn’t self-referential. “We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah,” D’Angelo says, referring to uprisings in Ferguson, in Egypt, and through the Occupy Wall Street movement. D’Angelo returned when we needed him more than ever, giving us his most political album yet. “1000 Deaths” opens with a sample of a pastor railing against the white image of Jesus, before turning into a haunting, twisted jam. “The Charade” is a rallying cry for anyone outraged at the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and any other black lives destroyed by police brutality and other societal forces: “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk.” And “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” is like an update on Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Me (The Ecology),” as D’Angelo sings about the scourges of acid rain and carbon pollution.

But as with any D’Angelo album, we also get songs reminding us that love is the answer. The rest of the album are celebrations of passion, sensuality, or devotion. On the album opener “Ain’t That Easy,” D’Angelo seduces the listener with his impassioned plea: “Separatin’, don’t debate it / Faithfully we’ll see this love through.” Could there be any better words after a fifteen-year wait? Just remember that love isn’t just lust — in what will probably be the most quoted line on Black Messiah, D’Angelo alludes to his personal turmoil on “Back to the Future (Part 1)”: “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to.”

After fifteen years, it feels like D’Angelo’s never left. Black Messiah is D’Angelo’s funkiest, most political, and most turbulent album yet, and it hits the same heights as his previous two albums. It’s definitely some of the best R&B this year, and it’ll make anyone reconsider their “best of 2014” list. Aren’t you glad you waited? (RCA)

Listen: Sugah Daddy

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