After two critically acclaimed albums, 14 years of silence, and ongoing rumors of an upcoming R&B masterpiece, there was a lot of hype revolving around the return of D’Angelo. Despite the anticipation, D’Angelo still managed to catch the public off-guard with the surprise release of Black Messiah in early December, just before the rumored 2015 release date.
Now, after years of teasing and delaying, Black Messiah has come to fruition at the perfect moment when it was most needed. As it turned out, D’Angelo chose to rush the completion of the album in the wake of the recent protests surrounding grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island, in which police officers were not indicted for the deaths of unarmed black males Michael Brown and Eric Garner. And indeed, while Black Messiah, an album as hugely important as its name suggests, has more than lived up to its anticipation, its inherent greatness is only amplified by its context.“It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has enough and decides to make change happen,” D’Angelo says in the liner notes. “Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
Black Messiah has two levels of sound space. The first is the messy collective: the raw mixture of muddy sound best exemplified in the first few seconds of the opening track “Ain’t That Easy,” or the entirety of “1000 Deaths.” The former features sludgy guitar and haunting vocal harmonies that border on dissonance without truly achieving it. It’s both off-putting and alluring. The latter rests uncomfortably on violent, distorted pulses. D’Angelo’s voice is filtered so heavily that the lyrics are indiscernible. It’s a daring wall of sound that doesn’t make much sense right away, but authoritatively demands your attention.
The second level is the mastery of the album. It’s the subtlety buried underneath the messiness, the sudden bursts of musical genius, complexity, and smoothness that make that wall of sound so mysteriously compelling. Everything amazing about Black Messiah exists below the surface, requiring deeper engagement. The quick instances of brass in “Sugah Daddy,” the smooth guitar of “Really Love,” or the rhythmically staggered drums on “Prayer” are all strokes of brilliance. The jazzy ending of “Betray My Heart,” created through subtle, sophisticated guitar riffs and fervent bass playing, might be the album’s smoothest moment. The finesse of Black Messiah is in these small, hidden elements, which come together to create a raw, beautiful mess, filled with emotion and sensuality.
Many critics have already drawn comparisons to Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, or Miles Davis’ On The Corner. Indeed, Black Messiah combines many elements, including jazz, R&B, urban, hip-hop, and funk, as well as the soulfulness of Sly and the hectic nature of On The Corner. But D’Angelo’s also not afraid to take away the crispness of those elements, to make it sound dirty, even filthy.And like There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Black Messiah gets political. “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk,” D’Angelo sings in “The Charade.” “Question ain’t do we have resources to rebuild / Do we have the will?” he asks in “Till it’s Done (Tutu).” With the urgency of the surprise Ferguson-response release, these lyrics take on an incredibly weighty meaning. Interestingly, they are often indistinguishable, lost in filters, harmonies, conflicting sounds, and odd rhythmic patterns. Like every other great element of the album, they require digging.
However, it’s not the politicization of the lyrics that makes Black Messiah so valuable—sex and love, for instance, are other major themes. Rather, it takes on a quality common to all great music and to every major social issue: it may seem confusing and messy on the surface, but if you dismiss it for that reason, you may just miss something important.
Featured Image Courtesy of RCA Records