In light of all the hoopla surrounding the surprise mid-December release 0f D’Angelo’s long-gestating new album, Black Messiah, it’s a little strange that despite all the rhapsodic praise that quickly followed—it’s classic, it’s revolutionary, it’s a miracle, etc.—curious agnostics can’t seem to get the answer to a simple question: Yeah, but is it actually any good?
Unfortunately, that’s almost impossible to determine. D’Angelo’s mythology has long overshadowed his music. Which isn’t entirely his fault. Beyoncé aside, the last R&B album to garner this much praise was ... his last album, 2000's Voodoo, which set the template for neo-soul (a media-created genre that, like “chillwave” or “IDM,” is loathed by artists but still somewhat useful for listeners). At a time when most black music was aping the most restrictive trends of “pop-rap,” with minimal soundscapes and programmed drums and two-bar samples of old hit songs, here was an album full of live instrumentation and real-life humanity, reclaiming the supposedly lost art of the bridge and the switch-up and the long, meaningful solo.
Voodoo suggested a hypothetical 21st century where pop radio still worshipped Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, and Prince; D’Angelo bolstered it with a meticulously crafted live show designed to shake the shit out of concertgoers more familiar with passive rappers shouting over their own backing tracks. But from there he pretty much vanished from the face of the earth, save the odd gossip-column appearance referencing his legal trouble, his alleged drug and alcohol addictions, and/or his yo-yoing weight. And then, 14 years after upending R&B, Black Messiah showed up on a Sunday night out of nowhere. A rapturous, myth-burnishing response was inevitable.
The guy knew what he was doing. Listeners and critics were so quick to compare Voodoo to Prince and Sly Stone because D’Angelo pointedly told everyone those were his muses. While striving for greatness isn’t troubling in and of itself, positing yourself as a Serious Artist hellbent on saving black music from its destructive tendencies is usually grounds for some serious side-eying. Back in 2000, his cult was closely affiliated with the “real hip-hop” crowd, which bemoaned rap’s more street-oriented and party-friendly direction, and felt that a hallowed genre that had (in their minds) traditionally prioritized dense lyricism and social consciousness was being taken away from them. The only acts holding true to the original vision of hip-hop—think Common, the Roots, Talib Kweli, etc.—saw their commercial prospects suffer at the hands of a public addicted to sugar and thus uninterested in vitamins. No one on the genre’s biggest stages spoke to these people and their ideals.
The Voodoo cult differed in a couple ways: Its devotees tended to be a little older than the rap kids, and remembered either firsthand or with the help of an older sibling the R&B, soul, and funk sounds of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and wanted someone steeped in those traditions to emerge. The mechanical, repetitive nature of New Jack Swing or the lyrically unsophisticated, aurally unadventurous pop-rap that followed wasn’t enough to satisfy the eclectic taste of this crowd. Didn’t black people play real instruments once? And weren’t they the best at it?
D’Angelo was a member of that disaffected group himself, and expertly preached to his own choir. But he didn’t preach alone. As the Roots’ drummer and de facto bandleader, Questlove had already staked out a position as a wise elder fluent in the history of black popular music, and as such was a revered figure to both the “real hip-hop” and “real R&B” crowds. In that capacity, he was quick to proclaim just how important and revolutionary and transcendent D’s talent and music were. The Roots’ website, Okayplayer, effectively became the Church of D’Angelo—its message board especially, where Questlove himself would extol the virtues of his soon-to-be MIA friend for a crowd of devotees and, for balance, a handful of rabble-rousing nonbelievers. It was a heady time, the peak of the Soulquarians, and while Common, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and the Roots themselves received their fair share of praise, D’Angelo still stood apart as an oracle of genius among the crowd.
As a budding high school know-it-all myself around that time, I took the lessons offered in the Lesson (the name of that particular OKP sub-board) very seriously. While my initial goal was to memorize every single thing that had ever happened in rap music, the concurrent streams of R&B, soul, and funk knowledge opened my ears to a wider swathe of great stuff from the past. And you can only read about D’Angelo’s greatness so many times before you’re compelled to investigate for yourself.
With that in mind, I
bought downloaded both of D’s albums (including 1995's Brown Sugar) and got to listening. Since I was too young to have any meaningful understanding of the classic soul D’Angelo referenced, and I’d been directed to worship this music as opposed to simply listening to it, I found that Voodoo especially was far more work than play for me. The music didn’t strike me at first, but I knew the OKPs were right, and I was wrong. I continued to study the sounds, venturing back to old Marvin Gaye albums and the like, awaiting that one moment when D’s purported greatness would smack me in the head. After all, the hero of my musical heroes had to be heroic, right?
In time, of course, I realized that it was okay to think Voodoo was really good and nothing more, that the Roots had a number of great albums themselves but weren’t gods, and that worshipping either act for extraneous reasons was bullshit. From that perspective, it was easy to see how that “D’Angelo as Savior” narrative rested on some faulty principles. For one thing, black music never needed “saving” from anyone, and the neo-soul sound bore no moral or artistic superiority just because it featured guitarists and trumpet players. Sure, Voodoo and the like revived an under-explored tradition, but moving on from once-dominant styles is usually a good thing: There were enough Prince knock-offs in the ‘80s to afford a relative dearth of them in the late ‘90s. Nor was D’Angelo the only current artist who still listened to Stevie Wonder, as the varied careers of his peers in the genre and lite-soul artists like Musiq Soulchild and Alicia Keys proved.
Another problem was the romanticized past these new artists were trying to live up to. To please and replicate their idols, they didn’t see their jobs as merely adding more funk licks to their songs, or using a vocal style that merged Curtis’s falsetto and Sly’s mush-mouthed enunciation. Audio techniques aside, D’Angelo also apparently felt the need to be Lyrically Important (e.g. the vague, cliché-riddled diatribe against materialism “Devil’s Pie”). But that was never going to really work for a singer like D, whose voice—as rich and expressive as it is—was best when adding color, not deeper meaning. What I mean is that you can’t understand a damn word he’s saying. There’s a reason one of his nicknames is D’Mumblo; his songwriting career is basically a long string of fanutes.
This tendency to drown his lyrics in layers of reverb and effects makes sense, though: Sung music is almost all about melody, timbre, and tonal emotion anyway. (Most people would prefer a great voice singing terrible lyrics to the opposite.) But it’s a little rich to espouse an artist’s lyrical content when no two listeners can agree what the lyrics to “The Root” (one of his best songs, by the way) even are, let alone what they mean.
And then D’angelo disappeared. For years, our only source of information was Questlove himself, who described the trials of a highly private man unprepared for the Sex Icon status he’d earned thanks to the titillating video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” at once insecure about the expectations that accompanied his new, chiseled physique and suspicious at a fan base that he worried only loved him for his looks. After touring behind Voodoo, he essentially went into hiding, ostensibly planning a new album but also allegedly succumbing to the vortex of alcohol, drugs, and depression that helped keep him out of the spotlight for nearly a decade and a half.
Meanwhile, Quest continued to burnish D’s musical reputation. He’d regale the parishioners with tales of D’Angelo learning guitar, taking inspiration from the likes of David Bowie and Frank Zappa, and tearing up his Voodoo formula in favor of a funkier, rockier sound that would blindside contemporary music to an even greater degree. The follow-up was coming, he insisted, and it’d be worth the wait.
But fans struggled with how far to follow their leader when the trail went cold for so long. Early on in his self-imposed exile, the D’sciples fought bravely against those who mocked them for worshipping such a troubled individual. They believed, as Quest promised, that James River (the reported working title) would shut up the haters and cement his place as a legendary artist. As the years and legal problems piled on, though, the crowd slowly thinned, or at least was far less vociferous. Within that vacuum, some naysayers even turned on Voodoo itself. Was it merely a good-to-great album that nevertheless suffered from turgid songs packed with unnecessary, pretentious riffs, and not a single song that could stand up to “When Doves Cry” or “Move on Up” or “Voyage to Atlantis”? Even on Okayplayer, when the topic came up, a few defenders would still engage, claiming that nothing since had equaled Voodoo’s brilliance, but most sat in silence, knowing that without any new music to back it up, their faith looked more and more misguided. At best, the guy was too afraid of failing to live up to his own hype.
Given this slow accretion of 14-plus years’ worth of context, it’s understandable that Black Messiah triggered such an instant, joyous response. Their hero was back! And the music sounded like nothing else out! And they knew they were right to believe, their faith repaid a hundredfold! It was the best album since, well, Voodoo! Never mind that people were shouting this from Twitter’s rooftops only hours after the album’s release, well before anyone possibly could’ve absorbed it—more than any other Great Artist in modern music, D’Angelo’s work can only be fully appreciated with time and intense concentration.
In some ways, Black Messiah suffers from the same missteps as Voodoo, at least in terms of presentation. It’s this damn insistence on Importance, from the artist and his fans alike. Start with the title, which D immediately endeavors to downplay in the liner notes ...
Which is all plausible, if a little too cute, given the deifying cult of personality he can’t help but be aware of. As for the Ferguson/Egypt/Occupy stuff, it’s funny to project current events onto a record that took this long to make, and while there’s no reason not to take his word for it, by my count there are only three vaguely sociopolitical cuts on the album: “1000 Deaths,” “The Charade,” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu).” Of them, only the first suggests the album Black Messiah is made out to be: an angry jam with a militant Fred Hampton intro and an aggressive, distorted guitar lick snapping between D’Angelo’s pained vocals about how “A coward dies 1,000 times / But a soldier dies but once.” It’s the funkiest song on the album, but it’s also my least favorite.
“Till It’s Done,” meanwhile, is a fine song with a strong groove that will get you bopping along, but falls short of really making you care too much about pollution or whatever D is going on about in the verses. And “The Charade” is definitely one of the best tracks on the album, though it’s a little like foreplay without any consummation: The Isley Brothers vibe, less oblique lyrics (“All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk”), and intertwined vocals create a perfect storm that seems like it’s crescendoing toward something truly spectacular, but instead, right as he’s about to throw off all restraints, the song abruptly ends. It’s undeniably a great song, but the live version almost ruins this tamer rendition.
As that track makes clear, though, D’Angelo’s true genius lies in his sound, not his ideas. Black Messiah, like Voodoo before it, really does feature some of the dopest grooves you’ll find in the last couple decades’ worth of popular music. His singular production style sounds as fresh today as it did in 2000—despite Questlove’s promises, this doesn’t represent any kind of radical departure for him, which is perfectly fine. “The Charade” and “Really Love” are two of his best songs ever, and album closer “Another Life”—which ends on a very “Adore” or “International Lover” tip—might be his best song, period. The vast majority of the actual lyrical content here concerns fairly simple relationships, and that’s perfectly fine, too: Vintage Prince could speak out for sexual freedom in song because the day-to-day realizations of that struggle incorporated real people with everyday struggles, not abstract ideals for him to intone about. And go through, say, Parliament’s discography, and you’ll find many more songs about dancing, having sex, and enjoying life than more serious numbers about druggies and interracial harmony.
Luckily, D’Angelo seems to understand this implicitly, and focuses most of his work here on real emotions, regardless of his liner-note posturing: It would just be a lot simpler for everyone if he didn’t feel the need to pretend to be doing anything else. In reality, if this album has any kind of thematic through-line, it’s probably D’s slightly conflicted emotions about being back on the scene. On “Ain’t That Easy,” he starts out singing, “My darlin’, you aren’t the average kind / You need the comfort of my lovin’ / To bring out the best in you,” but by the end, he flips it: “I need the comfort of your lovin’ / To bring out the best in me.” Music isn’t the same without him, but he may need it more than it needs him.
The music industry is a different story, of course: The government and the cops are the likely villains of “The Charade,” but it works just as well as an assault on the handlers and label henchmen who doubtless tried to goad him back out of retirement long before he was clearly mentally prepared to do so. Maybe “Betray My Heart” is D’s real response: a vow that he’ll never compromise his art for anyone.
Most directly, “Back to the Future (Part I)“ references the fires D’Angelo has fought through over the years. He adlibs before the song kicks off: “Everything used to just be so, carefree and loosy, you know? Just natural—second nature … It just used to come a whoooole lot simpler back then.” From there, he sings about how he finds himself back where he used to be, and things are more or less as he remembered them, but he still wishes things they could go back to exactly the way they were. The second verse seems to be Black Messiah’s most autobiographical moment:
If you win, no matter if you lose
You got to come back again
Pay some dues
Back in Richmond, shit ain’t changed a bit in
Niggas with a little piss in got some attitudes
I been wonderin’, if I can ever again
So if you’re wonderin’ about the shape I’m in
I hope it ain’t my abdomen, you’re referring to
D’Angelo clearly feels the pressures of the cult figure he created, with its unrealistic expectations for both his music and what it’s all supposed to stand for. The diamond-cut, stadium-playing, critic’s-darling, black-music-savior legend must’ve driven the quiet, humble homebody into a state of near-paralysis. The further away he was from that false idol, the easier it was to produce the music that ironically built that figure in the first place. Black Messiah is at its best when it’s also at its least messianic; it’s a very good album that only frustrates when you try to force it to be a life-changing one. He’s only a man—a sensitive artist capable of making great music. The less extraneous shit we try to pin on him, the better it is for him and for us.
Photo by Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images.