For a long while, D’Angelo followed the critical praise and fan-driven buzz of his first two records Brown Sugar (1995) and Voodoo (2000) by plunging himself in complete darkness for almost fifteen years. Of course, the odd feature and collaboration would pop up during this time, but so would troubles with the law and ongoing battles within his own personal life. Even through all of this, there was ongoing chatter of a tentative third album that was closer and closer to being completed as the years passed by, which had details changing often whether it was rumors of Prince and Cee-Lo being involved, or even a working title of James River. Throughout this entire process, though, what materialized was a sonically unique and refined piece of work called Black Messiah, credited to D’Angelo and The Vanguard, the latter being his in-house band.
Black Messiah was originally scheduled for an early 2015 release, but was moved up to speak to the times. Deeply moved and impacted by the recent protests following the brutal and unjust murders of Ferguson, Missouri teen Michael Brown and Staten Island resident Eric Garner, it was revealed through the New York Times that D’Angelo wanted to “speak out through the music”, thus prompting the surprise release of Black Messiah. Lyrically and conceptually, D’Angelo has made it very clear that he is not referring to himself with the name Black Messiah, but instead he explained in a listening session that “It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a black messiah. … Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest.” This reigns very true among further inspection of the record, as Black Messiah exists in a very different stratosphere than his previous album, Voodoo. Where Voodoo was sensual and playful, with funky programmed baselines and crispy, precise drumbeats, Messiah is an experiment in low-fi psychedelia, becoming a record that returns to a chaotic barrage of oddly mixed, acoustic, live instrumentation with a little help from Questlove of The Roots.
The record screeches and drags to a start with a amplified, static sound and hypnotic, groaning vocals behind it, all to reveal the stunning introduction, ‘Ain’t That Easy’. Here, D weighs similarities between an unhealthy relationship with a drug habit, and pens words comparing the two in heartbreaking harmonies, possibly relating to his drug-ridden past with lines like “You won’t believe all the things you have to sacrifice/Just to get peace of mind”. ‘1000 Deaths’ bounces and trembles along an industrial sounding, scattered beat with a low quality vocal sample praising the idea of a black Jesus, before detonating into inaudible melodies and boosted bass lines all growing at the same pace. The album’s lead single, ‘Sugah Daddy’ is a great focal point of the record at it’s funkiest, with a jazzy piano loop dancing in and out of the track, all with scattered horns and distorted, choppy vocals from D’Angelo.
‘The Charade’ becomes a warped, anthemic track disregarding the concept of authority and systemic oppression, with the sharp stabbing chorus saying “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we’ve only got outlined in chalk Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked/Revealing at the end of the day, the charade”. The second half of the record sees the clouds part to reveal a more melodic, soulful side to Messiah. ‘Betray My Heart’ is a warming and sweet melody paired with downtempo jazz instrumentation, while the album closer “Another Life” is a rare track where there are no distortions on vocals or instrumentations, and shines through as a glimmering, optimistic conclusion.
It is through these dimensions that Black Messiah exists—at one moment being unapologetically funky and crooning sensually like never before in all it’s low-fi, jazzy glory; at the next being a fist-raising, empowering record belittling the system and strengthening the very idea of unity. Even the love-driven ballads, though, share a common pain and uncertainty, while by contrast, the records that tend to speak on social or political constricts offer an optimistic view of the world. It’s this cycling duality that embodies the whole of the record, becoming a beacon of hope and symbolizing the idea that through the darkest, most oppressing times of living on this planet, there is always a love worth hanging on to. Through the low-fi barriers and sometimes inaudible lyrics, D’Angelo presents a hidden truth beneath it all, that Black Messiah is not a person or a figure, it is an intangible feeling and power that exists in all of us, to prove in his own words, “Collectively, we are all that leader.” He may be right, but the reaction to this record only proved how desperate music really was for a defining voice in these times, and although D may have taken his sweet time, his timing couldn’t have been more impeccable. Black Messiah is not only a beautifully chaotic and disruptive record, it could be one of the greatest socially and politically conscious empowerment albums ever.