There are many stages to experiencing Black Messiah, D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years. First comes the sensation of awe and disbelief, the pure bewilderment that the album that was promised for more than a decade is no longer just a dream. After that, you experience the wave of wonderment that crashes over you as you hear the overwhelming symphony of these expertly crafted 12 songs for the first time. The more you listen, the more you experience a sense of apprehension, unsure if the music is really as incredible as you’ve hoped for, briefly unsure whether the self-imposed hype you’ve placed upon the record is distorting your view. Finally, around the 12th or 15th listen, you understand that no, Black Messiah really is as fully realized and special as you’ve always hoped it would be, that the long lost masterpiece D’Angelo has been tinkering over for almost 15 years has come to fruition, and is a more than worthwhile follow-up to Voodoo.
Promised for years, many assumed Black Messiah was a pipe dream alongside Detox or Jay Electronica’s album, though Questlove’s repeatedly protested that the album was on its way. Initially slated for release in early 2015, D’Angelo rushed the album’s release after the news came out that the man who shot Michael Brown would not stand trial. Working tirelessly in the studio day and night, D’Angelo and his label wanted to make a statement, and even though they implored that the surprise release was not directly inspired by Beyonce’s ambush of a release last December, it felt like a similar move.
Given the name and timing of the release, it’s tempting to view Black Messiah as a purely political statement, but the politics and social issues D’Angelo delves into make up one part of a cohesive whole. The cacophonous and manic “1,000 Deaths” takes the point of a view of a nervous soldier trying to muster the courage to charge into battle. D’Angelo’s vocals are blurred in the mix as his virtuoso guitar playing, which he spent long periods of his hiatus improving, creates a spastic environment that fits the content of the song. “Till it’s Done (Tutu)” comments on climate change over a soulful A Tribe Called Quest inspired instrumental, finding D’Angelo lamenting the state of our world and wondering if people even care. The strongest political statement comes from “The Charade”, in which the song’s timeliness is as tragic as it’s content, with D’Angelo delivering powerful statements like “All we wanted was a chance to talk/Instead we got outlined in chalk.” Built around exposing the “charade” of current race relations in America, the song feels like the reason D’Angelo rushed his record so people could hear it.
Beyond that though, D’Angelo’s legacy is built around crafting love songs, and Black Messiah proves that he has not lost his touch. He goes from examining possessive relationships in “Ain’t That Easy” to the simple promise of unconditional love that permeates the quiet balladry of “Betray My Heart.” On the official single, “Really Love”, he invokes a Spanish style guitar to craft a tender, slow-burning cut that already feels like it could turn into the defining love song of this era. The most traditional track on Black Messiah serves as its most powerful, a direct statement of love that proves how adept D’Angelo is at his craft. All this leads up to and culminates with “Another Life,” a tremendously serene closer that finds D’Angelo pining for the one that got away, as a whirlwind of jazz and R&B sounds from the supremely talented Vanguard come together as he pleads “In another life, I bet you were my girl.” The song comes across as a tremendous statement of love and loss to end the album on, reminiscent of the way “Motion Picture Soundtrack” capped off Kid A as a plea to another realm.
David Sackllah is a Houston-based music writer who has contributed to The Daily Texan, Do512 and Houston Press. He can be found on Twitter at @dsackllah