Albums this anticipated aren’t supposed to be this good.
After 14 years of waiting, D’Angelo’s surprise album Black Messiah had every right to be the R&B/Soul equivalent of Guns & Roses' Chinese Democracy - a creaky mess that was done no favors by the weight of fan expectations. But that’s not what happened.
It might be blasphemy (no pun intended), but Black Messiah is actually better than D’Angelo’s 2000 Soulquarian opus, Voodoo. It’s better in the way that Prince's Sign O’ The Times is better than Purple Rain. It’s better in the way that Sly & The Family Stone's There’s A Riot Goin’ On is better than Life.
If Voodoo was a funk-fueled ceremony that used the Ancient Ones to cast out the demons of commercialized R&B, Black Messiah looks to invoke the wrath of those same gods upon a public that would not listen.
D’Angelo’s croon may be as silky as ever, but the angry guitar wails, sampled sermons and Prince-ly shrieks let the listener in on the fact that D’Angelo’s been watching the last decade go by, and he’s not at all happy.
That politicized intent also shines through in the production of the album. Voodoo sacrificed all parts of the song on the altar of the groove, oftentimes burying D’Angelo’s vocals until they became just another instrument. D’Angelo sits much higher in the mix on Black Messiah, making him more present and his statements more clear. The songs themselves are also starker, tending to function as individual units, unlike the seamless, single-session kickback feel of Voodoo. These abrupt stops-and-starts are a common hallmark in political albums, as they force the listener to sit up and pay attention.
Although hardcore D’Angelo acolytes might beg to differ, Black Messiah could not have come at a better time. Given the unrest in the United States over the last six months and the way it has largely been ignored by the hip-hop/R&B elite, D’Angelo’s latest offers refreshing and balanced black radicalism.
The album lures the listener in with opener “Ain't That Easy,” a psych-funk jam that negates any suspicion that D has been working with Max Martin or Dr. Luke. “He’s still got it,” you’re meant to think as the bass struts along and D’Angelo trades line with Funkadelian group choruses. Then “1000 Deaths” smacks you across the face with distorted vocals, clipped bass, a marching drum beat and a fiery sermon on Jesus Christ’s non-whiteness.
D’Angelo repeats this carrot-n-stick trick several times throughout the album. Tracks like “Sugah Daddy” and “Really Love” occasionally bring the album back into the familiar soulful pocket that fans know and love; then “The Charade” and “Til It’s Done (Tutu)” are waiting right around the corner to let listeners know that they should be very, very angry.
Much like Prince, Sly and George Clinton before him, D manages to roil and rage throughout Black Messiah without losing the essential coolness and soulfulness ascribed to his legacy.
In short: he’s smooth as hell and he’s not gonna take it anymore.