Every once in awhile, an artist somewhere on the R&B/soul/black music spectrum releases an album that’s simultaneously an attempt to come to grips with America, and to tell America to go fuck itself. Among the totemic examples are Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Sly And The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Funkadelic’s America Eats Its Young, Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, and Fishbone’s The Reality Of My Surroundings. D’Angelo’s third studio album, Black Messiah, is the latest addition to that list. It’s multifaceted to the point of schizophrenia, but crafted with impeccable care (it was recorded entirely on two-inch tape — no digital anything), and while its individual songs may initially sound like they come from wildly different albums, they ultimately add up to a cohesive, uniquely personal statement.
The album was premiered at an exclusive listening event in the penthouse of the Dream Hotel in Greenwich Village. Black-clad waitstaff circulated trays of high-end snack food: meatballs disguised as burgers by being placed within tiny rolls, equally minuscule crackers piled with lobster, pieces of chicken on weaponizably long spears. Questlove DJed, and spoke briefly about the album’s slow gestation. Nelson George provided an introduction to the record, reading a statement from D’Angelo himself that explained the album’s title. Spike Lee was there, wearing a hat that looked like Pharrell’s hat might have, had it been designed by Dr. Seuss. (It was traffic-cone orange, with a dark stripe spiraling around to its crown, and even after sunset, it was hard to un-see.) Some other music critics I recognized from VH1 documentaries about hip-hop were also present. The feeling in the room, for me at least, was a little weird. This would have been the perfect environment in which to allow oneself to be crushed beneath a high-gloss slab of pop triumphalism (like, say, last year’s secret-till-it-was-everywhere album event, Beyoncé), but for a record as obviously personal, as deeply and almost painfully introspective, as Black Messiah, it seemed particularly off-kilter.
Once the music started playing, though, nothing much else mattered.
Black Messiah begins with “Ain’t That Easy.” There’s a surprisingly rockish up-and-down keyboard-and-guitar riff, with the lead vocals buried beneath the music and vaudeville/old-timey female backing vocalists crooning in the back; the lyrics are in the spirit of Hendrix’s “Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland)” or Sly Stone’s “Luv N’ Haight” in the way they invite the listener to enter D’Angelo’s world for an hour. Vocally, he’s all over the place, pulling tricks from Al Green, Prince, Sly Stone, and even Fishbone’s Angelo Moore. It throws an arm around your shoulders and a bag over your head, disorienting you and welcoming you at once.
“1000 Deaths” was featured in a 15-second online promo for the record; it’s a hostile, sonically ugly track that begins with a sermon about Jesus’ blackness over massive, noisy drums. It recalls the four good songs on Yeezus, the ones that made it seem like Kanye had been listening to a lot of Nitzer Ebb. D’Angelo’s vocals are distorted into near-total indecipherability (once read, the lyrics are frightening: “Send me over the hill/ I was born to kill”) beneath layers of rhythmically pulsing noise and piercing high frequencies, and it ends with a guitar solo like a sustained scream.
“The Charade” is much gentler, psychedelic and Prince-like in its sound and feel (there’s even a sitar nestled in the mix). The way the backing vocals slowly rise, and the way the lyrics ground faith in everyday reality, are particularly purple.
“Sugah Daddy,” the track released as a teaser, is built atop a strutting, almost tap-dancing beat from drummer James Gadson. It features a Parliament-Funkadelic-esque piano melody, and cartoonishly warped layers of vocals into which the equally filtered horns (presumably courtesy of Roy Hargrove, a longtime D’Angelo associate) blend, and vamps for nearly a minute before ending. These first four tracks, taken together, recall Fishbone’s 1992 masterpiece The Reality Of My Surroundings; not in explicit musical terms, but rather in their overall noisy, anything-goes feel.
“Really Love,” the first single, is the opposite: a conservative, crowd-pleasing move, exactly what a certain element of D’Angelo’s fan base has been waiting and hoping for. It’s a tender love ballad arranged for Spanish guitar, strings, bass and a beat like a finger snap. The vocals are a straightforward whisper-croon, making this a perfect bedroom song, and also the end of the album’s first half.
Black Messiah resumes with “Back In The Future (Part I),” starting with vinyl crackle and a guitar that sounds like a banjo over a thumping hip-hop beat. As it develops, a violin comes in behind D’Angelo’s vocals (which for once are clean and not buried in the mix or effects). Lyrically, the song is a swirl of nostalgia and an attempt to keep the world at arm’s length; the line destined to be quoted everywhere is: “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/ I hope it ain’t my abdomen you’re referring to.” This track is probably the closest in spirit to the alienation and self-imposed solitude of There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
“Till It’s Done (Tutu)” is even more politically engaged than “The Charade,” with lyrics explicitly addressing climate change and social unrest. Musically, it’s one of the most live-on-the-floor tracks on the album, with bass from Pino Palladino and monumental, militaristic drums by Questlove, with D’Angelo himself on guitar and organ (according to Questlove, D’Angelo has spent much of the last decade-plus honing his skills as an axeman). His voice is Prince-like again; the song’s melody singsong and repetitive like a chant, befitting its somewhat lecturing tone.
“Prayer” contrasts religious lyrics with a mix that buries the vocals, like a dubbed-out Al Green. Indeed, the whole song sounds like it’s playing underwater. The aforementioned guitar practice comes into play toward the end, when a long, “Maggot Brain”-esque guitar solo takes the song out.
“Betray My Heart” kicks off Black Messiah’s final stretch, and it’s where a The Many Moods Of D’Angelo feel really takes over. The first sound heard is a sharp woodblock rhythm, with jazz guitar chords on top and a very active, pulsing bass line. After the first chorus, the jazz feeling is truly dominant; this song actually swings. After the second chorus, an electric piano is added to the arrangement, and the whole thing vamps for quite a while — at 5:55, this is nearly the longest song on the album.
With “The Door,” we transition from jazz to blues; the acoustic guitar lick is pure Delta, while the electric guitar takes it to Chicago. The whistling(!) is somewhat harder to pin down — the dock of the bay, perhaps. But while the lyrics, which encourage a woman not to leave (“Don’t lock yourself out that door, no, no”), are rooted in the blues, they’re delivered in D’Angelo’s patented multilayered soul croon. This is one of the tracks that most explicitly recalls his earlier work, and could definitely be another single.
That two-part journey into black music’s past is followed by a brief reprise of “Back In The Future,” basically a minute-long vamp on its chorus. And that could have taken the album out in a conclusive, resolute fashion, having allowed D’Angelo to express multiple sides of himself while still fitting everything into a relatively neat package.
But he’s got one more extravagant, sweeping gesture in him, and it comes in the form of “Another Life,” the album’s true conclusion and one of the most glorious moments of soul music in the 21st Century so far. Though it’s arranged for just piano, guitar, bass, drums, and sitar in the background, it feels as lush as any Delfonics track. It swells and swells, even without strings, and when the wave finally breaks, and the album is over, then there’s really nothing more to be said. It took him 14 years, but D’Angelo has made a Statement with Black Messiah, one that will take quite a few plays to parse.
Black Messiah is out now via RCA.