On December 15, 2014, D’Angelo’s nearly 15 year silence was broken. His new album Black Messiah dropped seemingly out of nowhere, garnering overwhelming and instantaneous acclaim. Pitchfork Media focused all their attention on the album, giving it an envied 9.4/10 “Best New Music” rating and plastering D’Angelo mentions all over the sight. They still can’t shut up about it, as goes for most other music publications, which is rare in a digital age where trends and albums come and go without much thought. Black Messiah is without a doubt bound to gain high marks amongst best of lists with the passage of time due to the immediate positive reaction to such a shock release. However, it is imperative to understand where such enormous hype and anticipation for D’Angelo came from. This R&B aficionado’s sophomore release is the genesis of his critical and even commercial obsession.
D’Angelo’s 2000 masterpiece Voodoo is a disorienting brew of black soul, personal demons, and existential ecstasy. It is the sound of a black male R & B singer using music as a tool to take himself to a higher realm of consciousness, a realm where emotion and passion overwhelm reality. Voodoo started out as a series of studio jam sessions in the late 90’s involving D’Angelo and his crew of session musicians including famed drummer of The Roots Questlove and bassist Pino Palladino. They would perform ‘Parliament Funkadelic’ and ‘Sly & The Family Stone’ covers and improvise off of them. However, these covers would gradually transform into original compositions so groove oriented that their human imperfections would beautifully match the production enhancements in perfect harmony. These songs are loose yet controlled, anxious yet tranquil, and overall just gorgeously human.
The analog production in itself is what gives this album such a surreal sheen. Horns, drums, guitar strums, and bass groves are all very crisp and warm sounding, emphasizing the value of analog in a digitally based world. Voodoo is a haunted sounding album; the sound of human souls joining together in a holy prayer of unity. You can hear laughter in these tracks and studio banter alongside the technical flourishes and vocal echoing. While there is some back story and context to this album to understand, it’s an album that you moreover feel rather than understand. Black Messiah has a much more political and socially aware context in relation to the injustice in Ferguson, New York, and amongst black folk. But understanding Voodoo is more reminiscent to following religion; it’s something you faith in rather than logically comprehend. Even the instrumental work, vocals, and lyricism while complex are more based off of feeling rather than technical focus.
Voodoo begins with ‘Playa Playa’, which starts with some haunted sounding banter before kicking into a loose soul jam. The groove lasts for roughly 6 mintues before it fades off into a terrifying enigma of heavily manipulated vocals. However, on Voodoo, most songs do not end but rather bleed into one another, like one long studio jam. ‘Playa Playa’ flows into ‘Devil’s Pie’ effortlessly, with a strident, pounding beat that is mechanical yet imperfect. The lyrical content of the song speaks of mankind’s temptations. Women prostitute their bodies, black people kill each other, and drug dealers sell crack all for the sake of getting a slice of the ‘Devil’s Pie’, or money and power.
The next song is ‘Left & Right’, which has with a funky guitar and bass strut and Method Man & Redman tag teaming rap verses with their infamous cadence, assonance, and sheer ability. D’Angelo just does his thing, singing about the peak of sexual ecstasy. ‘The Line’ takes advantage of it’s minimalistic nature, as you can hear every last nuance in D’Angelo’s voice. ‘Send It Off’ has a stellar use of horns, which help guide the song into a buttery, soulful flow. ‘Chicken Grease’ makes use of digital plug ins and enhancements via vocal manipulation and studio banter which adds a social, communal element to the song. ‘One Mo’Gin’ and ‘The Root’ make use of some thumping, bouncing, beautiful guitar arpeggios and bass work while ‘Spanish Joint’ is a perfect example of jam sessions at their finest. ‘Spanish Joint’ is the perfect marriage of technicality and soul, emphasizing adept instrumental talent without sacrificing emotion and passion. It grooves on into pure bliss and doesn’t seize until it beautifully smooths out at 5 and a half minute mark.
‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ is an gorgeous cover of Roberta Flack’s 1974 single. It is a straightforward song about feeling of love and affection. While there are sexual components in D’Angelo’s vocals and moaning, there is also an innocent feeling of youthful, innocent love present. It conveys feelings of carnality and fornication, yet also provides room to convey the undeniable feeling of holding hands with a special woman, crush, or lover. The stray horn stabs represent that warm feeling that love and crushes provide, and once again, as repeated over and over throughout this review, is overwhelmingly, throughly beautiful. ‘Greatdayinthemornin’/Booty’ further jams its soul out and segues into album highlight and pinnacle ‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’.
Enough has been said about the back story of ‘Untitled’. Rather than talk about the controversy surrounding it and exile that D’Angelo imposed upon himself from the public’s reaction (which one could easily look up on Wikipedia), it would be best to talk about the track in itself. This is a simple piano ballad that carries simplistic, frank majesty around it. Taking the best example of analog recording techniques, minimalism, reverb, and ambiance, it talks about how D’Angelo feels about a certain lover. This is a simple enough concept, but the song meanders and gradually builds up to intensify the feelings of love, lust, and spirituality present. It eventually explodes into a mix of spiritual ecstasy and vocal dubs creating a high so powerful that it cannot possibly go any higher, so it just fades out into complete darkness.
The album ends on the perfect note, ‘Africa’. This song talks about D’Angelo’s country of origin and the connection he feels with his ancestors and black brethren. The track is backed by a lullaby of twinkling electronic effects, guitars, and surrealistic awe that can be compared to Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’, although much more organic. The song ends with the instruments fluttering and a musique concrete sampling of birds chirping. After a brief period of silence, a quick barrage of reversed sounds shoot by like waking up from a dream or having a flashback.
After taking my headphones off, I am at a complete lack of words. The awe that Voodoo brings is rare to find, even amongst “perfect” albums. This might quite literally be one of the greatest, if not the greatest R&B album ever produced. Few other albums, such as Radiohead’s Kid A, Swans’ To Be Kind, and Nas’s Illmatic, can provide this timeless feeling. Enough has been said about this album, so it would be best to reflect on the following by Questlove talking about the power of Voodoo and music. ”If I was a singer this would be the record I’d make. Hands down. But that doesn’t mean this is for everybody. Music lovers come under 2 umbrellas […] those who use it for growth and spiritual fulfillment and […] those who use it for mere background music. The thing is, this record is too extreme to play the middle of the fence.”