D’Angelo: Black Messiah Review
It’s been 14 years, 10 months, and 19 days since D’Angelo released “Voodoo,” his last studio album. Since then, the mercurial and enigmatic soul singer has toured, disappeared, reappeared, played one-off shows, disappeared again, and head faked toward an album called “James River” several times. James River disappeared, and Black Messiah came in its place.
It wasn’t an easy road to get here. Every time one of the Soulquarians said in an interview, “D’s been working hard on his album. It could be out this year,” I believed it. Each time Questlove tweeted something like, “D’Angelo is going to put out something soon,” I got my hopes up. I was used to having my hopes dashed.
Questlove pulled D’Angelo out of hiding to play a show at First Ave in 2013. I went, was absolutely floored by the near-spiritual experience (remember him mashing up Gang Starr’s “Next Girl to the Ex Girl” with “Brown Sugar”? Actual OMG, right?), and wasn’t at all surprised when he cancelled a follow up show a few months later.
The reality is that we’re all different than when Voodoo came out. I’m glad I’m different than I was in 2000 (man, I was useless in 2000), and I’m glad D’Angelo is, too. What he’s done over the intervening decade and a half is crafted a substantial, heavy, deep, interesting album that’ll stay with me for a really long time. Black Messiah is clearly beautiful and powerful – it feels weirdly like it’s timeless, rooted in 90’s neo-soul, and forward-looking – and it is going to take some time to get deep into it. But that’s always been a part of the rewarding experience of being a D’Angelo fan.
Some quick thoughts about Black Messiah:
Sonically, this album is really big. There’s a lot going on in every song, from Dilla-like thumpy kick drum and clicky snare to super round sounding Rhodes to rich piano to so much more. More albums should sound like this.
There’s a straight-up guitar rock element to this album I wasn’t expecting. I’d read D’Angelo was learning guitar, and he brings a lot of that to this record. Songs like The Charade lean heavy on his new guitar prowess, but the guitar parts add an almost gospel-like lift to some of those songs. As it turns out, D’Angelo can shred.
I’ll just raise a quick toast to the rhythm section on this album. Questlove and D’Angelo are clearly besties and they’re as locked-in as they’ve ever been. I’m glad D’Angelo stayed with his long-time bassist Pino Palladino. Over the course of the record, these three constructed some deep, crucial grooves.
I’ll be honest, the second half of Black Messiah drags a bit. I don’t know if that happened because I’m tired – the excitement of waiting nearly 15 years for new music can grind on a guy – or if it just didn’t land right. I said to my partner that I feel like the second half of Black Messiah feels a little like second side of Sly & the Family Stone’s Fresh – a little meandering and a little too soft. What she said, though, was that those are the songs I go back to all the time. She’s right.
So, it’s been 5437 days since Voodoo came out. I know this because I’ve spent many of those days thinking, “man, it’d be cool if D’Angelo put new music out.”
Black Messiah was worth the wait. It’s magic. As a huge D’Angelo fan, it both met and could never have met my expectations. It’s deep art, funk and real, and will stay probably stay in heavy rotation for the next 14 years.
–Atom Robinson, @AtomRobinson