D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, reviewed.

D’Angelo’s Black Messiah Is Everything It Promised to Be, and More

D’Angelo’s Black Messiah Is Everything It Promised to Be, and More

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 16 2014 11:38 AM

Black Messiah

D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years is everything it promised to be, and more.

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
D'Angelo performs at the Sydney SoulFest Music Festival on Oct. 18, 2014, in Sydney, Australia.

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

On Monday morning, for the first time since Bill Clinton was president the world awoke to find a new D’Angelo album in it. The album is called Black Messiah, a title that contains traces of Robert Christgau’s famous description of D’Angelo back in 2000 as “R&B Jesus,” which would make Dec. 15, 2014 something like R&B Easter, just in time for the first night of R&B Hanukkah. D’Angelo himself has rightfully described it as “a hell of a name,” one that he writes is “about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.”

Jack Hamilton Jack Hamilton

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic and assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.

Before going further, a brief history of D’Angelo: a child prodigy born and raised in Richmond, he released his first album, Brown Sugar, in 1995, at the age of 21. That album, the vast majority of which was written and performed by D’Angelo himself, went platinum and established its maker as one of the brightest musical talents of his generation. He took five long years to produce a follow-up, but when Voodoo finally arrived in early 2000, it was a revelation, a visionary work of R&B that held its own with the best of Sly, Stevie, and Prince. D’Angelo then disappeared again, this time for more than a decade, his reclusion pocked by brushes with the law, drug abuse, and a near-fatal car accident in 2005. In 2012 he re-emerged, with rumors of a new album on the way. Still we waited.

And now it’s here. There is so much to say about Black Messiah, but the most fundamental is that it lives up to its name and fulfills even its most outlandish expectations. It is everything that its makers promised it would be: pathbreaking, surprising, beautiful, funky, shockingly warm, redemptive, an album that treats a long and illustrious musical history with reverence and lovingly pulls it forward. It is serious music that neither obfuscates nor ironizes itself, and it reminds us that great art is greatest when you can dance to it. We can talk about how it’s taken 15 years for D’Angelo to make this album; we might also talk about how it’s only taken 15 years for D’Angelo to make this album.

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He’s done so with the help of a murderers’ row of collaborators—the album is credited to “D’Angelo and The Vanguard”—including longtime co-pilot Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Pino Palladino, Kendra Foster, and Q-Tip. D’Angelo has long had a knack for inspiring some of the best musicians on Earth to make some of the best music of their lives, and the playing here is stunningly virtuosic while never invasive or ostentatious. “Prayer” features a rhythm-section performance that treats the downbeat like a Slip ’N Slide, slithering under your feet; the opening 30 seconds of “Betray My Heart” boasts a 3/4-to-4/4 metric shift that unfolds almost magically, like some casual sleight-of-hand trick. From a purely sonic standpoint, the recording and engineering are uniformly dazzling, both in their creativity and meticulous intricacy, from studio wizardry like flanged and phase-shifted vocals and instruments to the crisp, high-def immediacy of snapping bass strings and bone-dry cymbals and snares. The album was recorded entirely analog, on tape, but there’s no calcified classicism here; every sound is organic, alive, new. 

Black Messiah is a guitar album first and foremost, unprecedented terrain for the previously keyboard-centric D’Angelo. (“The one benefit of this eleven-year sabbatical was he used 10,000 Gladwellian hours to master the guitar,” Questlove told GQ in 2012. “He can play the shit out of it, and I don't mean no Lil Wayne shit.”) The album’s opener, “Ain’t That Easy,” is a heavy, blissed-out rocker that sounds like Sly Stone meets T. Rex. “The Charade”—the album’s most talked-about track thus far, with its biting “all we wanted was a chance to talk / instead we only got outlined in chalk” refrain—is a hard and shimmering gem of guitars and rhythm, some clean, some distorted, all perfect. One gets the impression that D’Angelo could make the best rock album in recent memory if he ever decided to, if he hasn’t already just done so.

D’Angelo’s exploration of musical history on Black Messiah is rangier than on Voodoo, an album whose greatest achievement was its alchemy of hip-hop and avant-garde R&B. There’s nothing on Black Messiah that’s really reminiscent of “Devil’s Pie,” Voodoo’s creaky, DJ Premier-produced masterpiece, or “Left & Right,” the sexed-out banger that featured Method Man and Redman, or even the spacy, Dilla-ish funk of “The Root” and “Playa Playa.” Black Messiah is preoccupied by the 1960s and ’70s, but in subtle and adventuresome ways. There’s a sparkling electric sitar that drifts in and out on the album-ending ballad “Another Life,” and the popped compression on the bass on “1000 Deaths” sounds ripped from There’s a Riot Goin’ On. “Sugah Daddy,” the greasy, mind-bending lead single that surfaced less than 24 hours before the album, features tripped-out horns and a killer New Orleans-ish piano part, James Brown meets James Booker. D’Angelo hasn’t simply absorbed histories, he’s connected them to each other.   

Black Messiah also finds D’Angelo having grown considerably as a songwriter, and not just in righteously politicized lyrics reputedly inspired by Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street, and Ferguson. Black Messiah is a more harmonically and melodically varied record than any he’s made previously, and while D’Angelo’s multi-instrumental talents have long brought comparisons to Prince and Stevie Wonder, Black Messiah bears the prominent influence of another do-everything former wunderkind: Paul McCartney. The psychedelic singsonginess of the two-part “Back to the Future” and the swinging, Tin Pan Alley amble of “The Door” sound like the handiwork of someone who’s worn out several copies of Ram (Questlove has hinted as much), and on his comeback tour he’d been covering “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window” during live sets.    

When D’Angelo emerged in the mid-1990s, he was slapped with the label “neo-soul,” a term that always seemed weird, as though “soul” was something that had ever gone away. Our more recent 21st-century vogue for throwback R&B, from the Mayer Hawthorne types and the whole Daptone thing on this side of the Atlantic to the massive success of Amy Winehouse and Adele on the other, sometimes seems to buy into this idea—for all the talent in play, there’s a preciousness that can feel like listening to a museum. And given the relatively overwhelming whiteness of the makers and consumers, it can all start to feel a tad presumptuous; intrepidly rescuing Motown and Stax from the dustbin of history is only necessary if you’ve put them there in the first place.

This Black Messiah, though, this “idea we can all aspire to”—if something like “soul” really exists, this is what it’s always been about. There is so much music in this person, and so much music in his music. When Black Messiah emerged late Sunday night, there were plenty of jokes about how every music critic in the world was now scrambling to revise his year-end lists, which, I don’t know, sure, I guess. What I do know is that on a January night in 2000, I ventured out into the freezing cold to stand in line at a Tower Records that no longer exists so I could buy a copy of Voodoo at the stroke of midnight. I was 20 years old and took it home and listened to it well into the early morning, convinced it was the best album that had ever come out in my lifetime, the kind of thing you convince yourself of when you’re 20. All I wanted that night was to hear the next D’Angelo record, talk about it, write about it, and I’ve wanted that every day since. Music like this is made for a different list.