D’Angelo Brings It All Together With the Long-Awaited ‘Black Messiah’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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This Monday morning, I came dragging into work, having stayed up till midnight to purchase D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and then up another hour to listen to (and dance to) the album, and then another hour to listen again to select tracks over and over again. I kept refreshing #BlackMessiah on Twitter throughout all this, which invigorated me all the more.

All the same, that 7:00 a.m. alarm clock ringing has rarely felt worse. Coffee beckoned, and I got it percolating at the office. My email to the caffeine drinkers: “D’Angelo released his first album in 14 years last night at midnight. So, I was up until 1 a.m. So, I need coffee. Which is brewing now.” The immediate responses brought me back into the real world, reminding me that there’s a great swath of the world, largely white, that either didn’t caught up with last night’s online hurricane or wondered why it all mattered. One woman had never heard of D’Angelo, which is fine. Another man asked if “he is that recluse that’s friends with Questlove.” (Yes, but…) Another dude got the vibe, sorta, after rooting around the Internet for a bit: “Woah. Like the R&B equivalent of a new Radiohead album dropping. People are freaking out. Nice.”

Which, OK, is actually a good starting point for understanding Black Messiah, both for the strong similarities and equally major differences between Radiohead and the artist born Michael Eugene Archer. Both artists started out as relatively straightforward — if technically quite accomplished  —pop artists working in their respective genres. Both made quantum leaps in skill and ambition between their debuts and their next couple of albums. (Though, let’s be fair: D’Angelo’s like Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood combined into one man, as D’Angelo was playing most of his own instruments even on his debut, Brown Sugar, and publicly declared that he aspired to be the next Prince and the next Marvin Gaye at the time, which, whoa man, slow your roll.) The relationship of Radiohead’s Pablo Honey to The Bends is like the transition from D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar to Voodoo — the first’s making very good pop; the second’s redefining and pushing the boundaries of pop, almost to its breaking point. By the time Radiohead got to its third album, OK Computer, it was bringing together disparate genres so thoroughly that the sound was no longer rock, prog, electronica, or ambiance. It was simply Radiohead.

D’Angelo, as we know, took his sweet time getting to that third record. So it’s fortunate that we were able to coin the term “D’Angelo-esque” because of Voodoo. He created his own sonic identity, ironically, by collaborating strongly with musical forces as strong as his own. He brought in Questlove, already a legend in hip-hop by that point, as drummer and producer. Raphael Saadiq of the popular and influential group Tony! Toni! Toné! produced tracks, played guitar, and co-wrote songs, including the album’s biggest hit, “Untitled (How Does It Feel).”

Erykah Badu and Angie Stone sang on Voodoo and helped write several of its songs. DJ Premier, one of rap’s greatest producers, added beats, melodies, and samples from a who’s-who of contemporary hip-hop. Speaking of which, Method Man and Redman dropped crucial verses on “Left and Right.” Young jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, already well-known, added textures to “Send It On” and “Spanish Joint.” Keyboardist and producer James Poyser made several appearances. And then there’s super-bassist Pino Palladino, whom we’ll discuss at length later on.

I realize I’m trying your patience, but I’m making a point: Voodoo‘s significance is not just that it’s a gorgeous, erotic album but that it’s also 1) a groundbreaking one for fusing several modes of black pop (hip-hop, old-school soul, 1990s R&B, and Purple Rain — which is its own genre); and 2) a truly collaborative album that nevertheless feels like a singular vision. As great, experimental, and world-changing as Radiohead can be, it’s not a collaborative band. It doesn’t bring together others. The rare guest musicians, mostly during the weird Kid A/Amnesiac period, are exactly that — guests, hired help. D’Angelo’s gift, and Voodoo‘s promise, was to create a party in which we were all invited. That album is a summit of black pop, bringing together people and styles that might not have otherwise hung out with each other, and may even have gotten into fistfights with each other without D’Angelo’s guiding energy.

Radiohead is trying to establish itself as a singular identity, so distinct that it draws no comparisons. D’Angelo’s interested in being his own bad-ass self, too, but he’s far more interested in extending a conversation. This crosstalk amongst funk, Motown R&B, Stax soul, black pop, hip-hop, and the remains of jazz and blues all started, in a way, with the New Jack City movie soundtrack. Brown Sugar and Voodoo continue that talk, and in doing so, he tried to fashion himself as the end product of a chain that started with James Brown and Marvin Gaye, refined itself with Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, climbed new heights with Prince, and perfected itself with, well, D’Angelo.

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Now, he’s furthering the discourse again, with Black Messiah. The new record broadens the range of black pop, sometimes by rendering it unrecognizable, sometimes by stretching its limits, and sometimes simply by reintroducing elements to it that we had forgotten. It’s a mission statement on black pop’s past, present, and possible futures.

Black Messiah‘s predecessors, its influences from the past, are clear: James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Philly soul and all its strings, the Soulquarians collective (in which D’Angelo played a big role). It’s plugged into the present, too, with collaborators ranging from modern masters Questlove, Q-Tip, and Pino Palladino to newcomers (or at least new to me) such as Kendra Foster, who co-writes the lyrics for eight of the album’s 12 songs. But it also sounds cosmic, with its echoed slurs, distortions, processed vocals (and often not processed — D’Angelo can just do things with his vocal delivery and register that most of us can’t). He’s offering a hopeful, troubled prayer for the future in one song (“Prayer”) and a call to revolution with another (“1000 Deaths”). Given this, it’s no surprise that there’s a two-part track called “Back to the Future.” For all of Black Messiah‘s ties to the past and present, it is future funk. It sounds like nothing else around it.

Afrofuturism, of course, brings us to the album’s biggest and most unacknowledged influence: George Clinton. Black Messiah‘s breakbeats, abstract poetics and weird shifts, its reaches into cosmic space, the ramshackle and squalling guitars, the pounding rhythms that are too liquid to be hardcore, the hilarious and maybe nonsensical chants, the willingness to bury the vocals so far into the mix that you need a jackhammer and a lyric sheet to unearth them — well, this wild vision of blackness all belongs to Parliament-Funkadelic. (And, okay okay, Sun Ra, too.) Conversations, recorded live or sampled, float into and out of the mix like weak radio transmissions.

But conversation is happening all the same throughout Black Messiah, and true conversation — as opposed to lecturing — requires collaboration. So it’s refreshing to find that Voodoo‘s creative methods remain intact here. Friends old and new enter into D’Angelo’s world: Questlove co-produces “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” and “Another Life,” both of which are instant classics; Q-Tip co-writes “Ain’t That Easy” and “Sugah Daddy,” two of Black Messiah‘s catchiest songs; Pino Palladino’s bass works over almost every song. (More on him in a sec.) The collaborative ideal is so critical that the album is credited to D’Angelo & the Vanguard, as if he’s refusing the presumption of taking sole credit, even though this is all so clearly filtered through his consciousness. The brother acknowledges that everybody needs help to make it through, even D’Angelo.

If I’m focusing so much on Black Messiah‘s collaborators, it’s because I’m taking D’Angelo’s cue. Or, as Robert Christgau wrote about the 2000 Voodoo tour, “I name these sidepeople because the best funk band in the universe deserves some props.” D’Angelo’s band can still hold that claim, y’all. And there ain’t no great funk without a great bassist. So let’s discuss a dude from Wales, born almost two decades before D’Angelo: Pino Palladino.

D’Angelo is the guiding force and the frenzy, but Palladino’s bass is the glue that keeps the frenzy together. He’s as versatile as Los Lobos’s Conrad Lozano, capable of playing beautifully in a variety of modes while simultaneously serving the song and sounding like nothing but himself. Palladino held Voodoo together. He was the bassist on the legendary Voodoo tour of 2000. He keeps Black Messiah rolling through all its changes, through Big D’s vocal improvisations and rhythmic shifts — many of which happen within the same song. D’Angelo’s knowledge of pop is encyclopedic, and his willingness to explore its genres is exhausting in Black Messiah. Whereas Voodoo‘s songs built grooves gradually and sustained them, occasionally for too long, Black Messiah is more stutter-step, rough-hewn and busy.

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There’s so much going on. “Prayer,” my favorite song, appears to be constantly a touch offbeat, drum snaps and deep bass almost running into and wrongfooting each other, the vocal line distorting and cutting off at odd moments, until I realize that it’s messing itself up each time at precisely the same point in the beat, which means (of course!) that it’s not messing up. It’s so right by being so wrong, and only a killer bassist could hold that shit together. At the 3:12 moment of “Ain’t That Easy,” Palladino switches to a gorgeously melodic bassline in a different time signature, while D’Angelo swoops and croons. This lasts for a mere 10 seconds before switching back to our irregularly scheduled program. It’s not a bridge, exactly, and it doesn’t repeat itself elsewhere in the song. It’s just D’Angelo, Palladino, and company flexing for a sec. As D’Angelo sings once, we return to the main beat: “You bring out the best in me.” He’s addressing his lover, but he’s also talking to his bandmates.

He could also be talking, too, to the aforementioned Kendra Foster, about whom I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more. D’Angelo has always worked and composed well with women — Angie Stone’s all over the composing of Voodoo — but Foster’s presence is strong even by D’Angelo’s high standards. This ease of collaboration and mutual respect highlights one of D’Angelo’s best aspects as a musician and a man. He loves women, sex, and love with women. And he refuses to define his well-honed, sexy black masculinity through the denigration of women. That ain’t to say he can’t get filthy nasty (“Sugah Daddy”) with women or gooey with romantic sentiment (“Really Love”) about them. It’s just that he lets women be as complicated as he is, and lets them work with him as equals.

Black Messiah is deeply invested in notions of racial equality, too. Make no mistake, Black Messiah is as ferociously and defiantly African American as Public Enemy’s Fear of A Black Planet. It’s not just the sound-collage politics of “1000 Deaths” or the weariness of “The Charade” but also the black-pastor exhortations and seductions of “Prayer” and “Another Life,” versions of which I’ve heard every time I attend service at an A.M.E. church or go to a black Baptist funeral. Blackness reigns in the smutty slang lyrics of “Sugah Daddy,” which manages to bring up pussy farts and spanking without being the least bit misogynist. “The Door” is as straightforward a blues song as D’Angelo’s capable of, which is to say it’s not that straightforward but is recognizably and beautifully blues. Throughout the album, he channels Eddie Hazel (there’s that P-Funk influence again), returning rock guitar — slurred and wily and on-beat — to its African American roots. He might not be Hendrix or even Prince, but D’Angelo’s pretty damn good. His guitars dance and prance, in the jazzy “Betray My Heart,” in the raging “1000 Deaths,” in the droning, distorted “Prayer,” the flamenco inflections of “Really Love,” and the funky call-and-response of “Back to the Future (Part II).”

Jazz, rage, cosmic droning, flamenco, funk: Black Messiah is as complex as black life itself, which is to say it’s as complicated and multifaceted as, well, humanity. At every turn, musical and lyrical, D’Angelo reminds us here of the utter humanity of African Americans. We think that’s basic knowledge, don’t we? It should be, right? The idea that black life is as strange and magical and human as any other life, and worth just as much precisely for its strangeness, should be a given. I know this. D’Angelo knows this. But we’re both black men, so we also know that most of America does not know or acknowledge this. After Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo, Aiyana Jones, Jordan Davis, the lingering legacy of that old fella Jim Crow, Jesus Christ take your pick, shouldn’t it be evident that America doesn’t know this?

Black Messiah recalls all of this. By folding the whiteness of Pino Palladino into this, by massaging the vocal coos of doo-wop into this record, D’Angelo acknowledges that black America is intertwined with white America. It’s a jarring, pulsing record that kicks us as much as it caresses us, that slinks and scurries and skitters even when it’s fluid and juicy. It pops. It is pop, at its highest level.

If we’re going to bet on hope, on coming together, on a vision of blackness that’s fully integrated into American life and recognized as the full humanity that it clearly is and has always been, we might as well bet on Black Messiah to point the way.

Ante up, people.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for that. Lot of layers in the review – thanks for zooming in on Pino Palladino too. Charlie Hunter also left a decent footprint in Voodoo.

    Can’t believe how well Black Messiah is being received. Haven’t heard it yet… just trying to be patient. I was in for the long haul anyway, but off your review I’m going in with a guilty smile.

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