Is D'Angelo's Black Messiah Really That Good?
Photo by Greg Harris/RCA Records
It took maybe the final three weeks of 2014 before I truly realized that D'Angelo had released an album. That sentence alone sounds like a Christmas miracle but there we sat, enjoying our lives with a brand new D'Angelo album to dissect and enjoy.
Wait -- let us backtrack. D'Angelo is an enigmatic singer whose 1995 debut album covered plenty of old soul while mixing in a bit of laid-back lounge refrains and effortless cool. The tag "neo-soul" was attached to it. Five years later, he appeared in front of us, shirtless with chiseled abs and crowed about being in the mood for love, sometimes subtracting lyrics for elongated adlibs and ooohs. His signature moment, "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," may have single-handedly sent boys on the verge of adulthood to the gym so they could look like D'Angelo for their ladies, complete with lip curl, sexual desire and seduction. All of it.
The video became a cultural landmark, a proactive twitch up your spine; the song became a mocking tool whenever you wanted to rib on someone. It preceded his second album, Voodoo which turned 15 last week. That album went on to sell more than 3 million copies and made D'Angelo not only a star, but also a star stuck with a creative albatross thanks to that video -- and stuck being a sex symbol.
He's R&B's mythical phoenix. A formerly reclusive singer who, for the first time ever, is playing Saturday Night Live this weekend. Everybody, thanks to Black Messiah. wants a piece of D'Angelo again. And we've had a month to sit with this album, this analog, retrosuperfuture piece of music for a month. And we asked ourselves something to the tune of:
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Is it good? Is it great? Can I listen to it with my mother but also my lady? These are basically the only two people in the history of mankind for whom R&B is truly made. Because one of them is going to convince you -- indirectly or right in your face -- why you should have some sense of "soul" in your life.
The questions pick up again: why the hell is he mumbling throughout it? Holy hell, I think that's a Sly Stone reference; there's definitely some There's a Riot Going On here. It's only 50 minutes, and why isn't there a real slow jam on here? (There's two, actually.) These questions all deserved answers and got them. Every critic immediately rocketed it up his or her year-end lists, with good reason; it topped our sister paper the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop poll too. The album is damn good.
Story continues on the next page.
D'Angelo live at Toyota Center in September 2012
Photo by Groovehouse
There's the satellite cry of a dirty hymn of "Prayer," where the singer carefully skirts around the Lord's Prayer like an alien looking for a home. It's a squelchy, guitar-lover's wet dream of a distress signal. There's also D'Angelo being crass about sleeping with younger women on "Sugah Daddy," winking with big eyes that he "made the pussy fart."
You can also theorize that Black Messiah is built around black consciousness in the past 12 months and be absolutely right; the Eric Garners, Michael Browns, John Crawfords and Tamir Rices of the world going under in suspicious ways and all of that shit wearing on a man. A man has thoughts and philosophies, and D'Angelo plays many roles on Black Messiah: ecologist, protective lover, man down on his luck, another fed up with the status quo ("All we wanted was a chance to talk/ 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk").
In all, he merely wants to walk the Earth with the guitar he learned to play pretty damn well during his decades away, and to love. And to be a sharp musician who can warble through different time periods of funk and soul.
The album may not hold social media's collective consciousness like it did on that fateful December night, but it's still a form of gospel -- psychedelic, loverman gospel. Do I care what he plays on NBC Saturday, the night before the Super Bowl? Not really. He may fit in "Sugah Daddy" to appease those who want to dance, or opt for "The Charade" or even "Really Love." I just hope he does "Prayer." We could all use that.
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