The Second Coming of D'Angelo

How soul's lost superstar reclaimed his mojo and finally released the epic 'Black Messiah'

D

'Angelo is a morning person, of sorts. When he's working in the studio, as was often the case in the 14-year interregnum between 2000's Voodoo and 2014's Black Messiah, he quits his all-night recording sessions just in time to greet each day's sunrise. "I'm definitely on the night shift," he says, drawing deep on one of a series of Newport cigarettes, not long after midnight in the midtown Manhattan studio where he recorded much of Black Messiah. He's wearing a denim shirt unbuttoned over a white undershirt, dark jeans and leather boots. Dog tags bearing the names of his three children hang from a chain around his neck. He looks weary, though he woke up not long ago. It's his first interview since he released one of the most universally acclaimed albums in years, an album that seemed as if it might never come out at all.

D'Angelo could well be the most singular, visionary star to emerge from — and then transcend — R&B since Prince. His music, stuffed with live instrumentation and harmonic sophistication, is suffused with the sound and spirit of Sly Stone, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, among many others. But if Prince has been prolific to a fault, D'Angelo has had the opposite problem: It took him five years to follow up his first album, 1995's Brown Sugar, thanks in part to writer's block and label problems. But Voodoo was a stone classic, with the Roots' Questlove and session bassist Pino Palladino helping him create a swampy, hip-hop-informed mélange of black music's past and its possible future. His nude beefcake video for the slinky "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" was an MTV and BET smash, making him a sex symbol. (Friends said it haunted him as he slipped out of shape in the years to come.) And then, aside from a few guest appearances, silence. 

D'Angelo's heavy-lidded eyes are warm, with flashes of wariness. He's quick to laughter, and radiates disarming gratitude at the slightest compliment. He can be vague when the subject turns to why his album took so long, mostly blaming major-label turmoil, though a cocaine and alcohol problem that culminated in a 2005 car crash and rehab stays didn't help. He's also a perfectionist, and Black Messiah, with its dizzying layers of vocals, guitar (much of it played by D'Angelo himself, who mastered the instrument during his break), strings and keyboards, is the rare album that seems to have benefited from endless tweaking — it manages to be simultaneously lush and abrasive, bracingly modern and soothingly retro.

D'Angelo, who turned 41 in February, is clearer on what pushed him to finally release the LP: He had lyrics that dealt powerfully with police violence and black despair, and the protests in Ferguson made him realize it was time. "I was like, 'Man, I gotta fucking contribute. I gotta participate,' " he says. "And I'm done trying to be a perfectionist about it."

But in the rush, he released only a portion of the album he envisioned. So even as a June tour looms, he's back in the studio now to try to finish what he's hoping will be an expeditious follow-up, working with leftover tracks from the same sessions. His gear is in his preferred room, the way he likes it: his custom-made electric guitar, a vintage drum machine, a bass, a gleaming black piano; and in the far corner, a fabric tent where he likes to huddle when recording vocals ("my little tepee," he calls it). On the floor are boxes from his vinyl LP collection, heavy on gospel vocal groups.

D'Angelo grew up in Richmond, Virginia — his father, a preacher, was mostly out of his life by the time he was nine. But the church loomed large in his upbringing — a child prodigy, he was backing the choir on piano each Sunday at age five. His initial musical fascinations were gospel and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, until he heard Prince: "It was love at first bite."

The interview continues a couple of days later in a private room booked by his high-powered manager, Kevin Liles, in an exclusive cigar club, the Grand Havana Room. D'Angelo shows up cheerfully at midnight for a 9 p.m. appointment, looking freshly showered and caffeinated. This time, he wears a Kangol cap at a jaunty angle and a shirt that says 'AFRO PUNK.' We talk until the club shuts down, then drive aimlessly in an Uber looking for a new location. He makes small talk, big-upping an HBO documentary on Fran Lebowitz and expressing the desire to buy a Pono, before finally coming up with a destination: the studio, once again.

People were wondering if you were ever going to release a new album. Was that a question in your own mind, though?
No one knew what the fuck! [Laughs] But for me, it wasn't a question, not at all. I had a little anxiety of how it would be received, but I knew it was coming.

The song "Back to the Future (Part 1)" feels like a reintroduction to the world.
When I wrote it, I envisioned it being the first thing people would hear, because it kind of tells the story of where I've been: "So, if you're wondering about the shape I'm in/I hope it ain't my abdomen that you're referring to." It was kind of like me answering some questions, without really being asked. Not just for everybody, but also for myself.

The trippy strings on that song have a "Sgt. Pepper's" vibe.
Wow, thank you! The Beatles are a major influence for everybody, but when I was writing that song, I was very heavy into them — I was fucking around and doing covers of my favorite Beatles songs, experimenting with shit like that. I also really was digging America Eats Its Young at the time, which was one of the only Funkadelic albums that utilized strings.

The "Charade" lyrics — "All we wanted was a chance to talk/'Stead we only got outlined in chalk" — got a lot of attention for their timeliness.
It just shows how ongoing this shit is, because I wrote that even before the Trayvon Martin thing happened. It's crazy that we're still in the streets protesting the same shit. That song was just about the state of society in general — when I say, "A chance to talk," that means a chance to come to the table and exercise rights that are supposed to be ours already. Me and [co-writer] Kendra [Foster] were reading a lot of [James] Baldwin around that time.

How did you end up with such a richly layered album?
The best way to describe the process is very much like a sculpture. You're just constantly chipping and chipping away at it. I'll work on something for a minute, and, once I feel like I'm starting to fixate on it, I put it away and go to another one. I jump around a lot. I play pretty much everything on all of the songs, and after I'm done with the blueprint, then I'll bring in my guys. Or there are times when it's just me and Ahmir [Questlove], and he'll come up with the drum pattern, and I'll sit around and write the music. Then when Pino comes in on the bass, he can mirror my left hand on the keys in such a way where it's hard to tell the difference even amongst ourselves. 

Can we attribute the delay of the album, ultimately, to your substance issues, or was it much more complicated than that?
The shit that happened in my personal life didn't help, but it wasn't just about that. There were moving parts — management changes, record-company changes. Virgin Records went defunct, and before that, they went through personnel changes. Back in the day, the executives actually gave a fuck about music — that's the biggest change. The music business is a crazy game, especially for somebody like me who is really a purist about the art. Trying to balance the pressures of commercialism, it's a tightrope. It's a fine line between sticking to your guns and insanity.

What was the label hoping for?
The label wanted a Voodoo part two. At one point, after Voodoo, I was early in the process of working on new music that would eventually be on Black Messiah, and I let the label know where I was at with it. The music was pretty ahead of the curve, and they weren't ready for that. They had these young college kids coming in as A&R, trying to tell me, "You should get so-and-so to produce this track, or you should get so-and-so to spit 16 on this." I remember walking out of a meeting like, "Fuck you, fuck this!" The biggest factor in all of it was money. They cut off funding, and I had to go on the road to generate money on my own to fund the recording.

What has the course of your friendship with Questlove been through all of this?
For the most part, it's just love. There were peaks and valleys — we're brothers, and brothers fight. When Dilla died, it hit all of us. [Editor's note: Voodoo collaborator J Dilla died in 2006, of complications from lupus.] It scared the shit out of me, actually, enough that I really felt my own mortality. I think Ahmir was afraid for me at that point, and sometimes when you feel like that, I guess you don't quite know how to express it, and there was silence. I just had to go through it and get to the other side of it. And thank God I did.

Ferguson aside, how did you know the album was done?
It was time. Everyone was in the streets, so we sat down with the team and did some soul-searching and decided to put it out. But if it were left entirely up to me, it wouldn't have come out. I had to get out of my head. Because there were so many songs that I wanted people to hear.

Were you originally thinking of, like, a 36-song triple-LP thing?
It wasn't that long! [Laughs] But it was longer than what Black Messiah ended up being. What I'm working on now is like a companion piece. I hope people receive it that way. It's part of the same vision.

The political songs got the most initial attention, but there's a lot of other things going on there.
Well, a lot of the songs that people didn't hear really take on those themes even more directly than the songs that are on Black Messiah.

So you could have hit people with something that was kind of like . . .
Almost like a beating over the fucking head [laughs].

There's rarely a lead vocal by itself on this album — you surround your voice with harmonies. What is that about for you?
I grew up teaching parts to choirs, and I love a whole group of voices singing as one. When I was young, I had an "aha" moment in church. There was a thing called testimony service, and somebody would sing a song, and everyone else would join in, finding a note where they fit. During one of those, a light went on in my head. In that moment, I heard everything — Parliament, the Staple Singers, Curtis Mayfield, Prince — in there. That sound came out of the slave ships, straight from Africa, like in 12 Years a Slave when they're singing "Roll Jordan Roll." That's why that shit resonates. I can just think about that and get chills. So when I got my first four-track recorder and started multitracking my own voice, that was the first thing I aspired to reproduce.

You had people from your church telling you not to play "the devil's music" — that goes back to the days of Sam Cooke.
I never believed it. They were trying to make me afraid of something I just wasn't afraid of. And my grandmother, who was like a saint, never said that to me. Just the contrary. She would say, "Go out there and do your thing."

Someone like Marvin Gaye saw spirituality and sexuality in conflict, but Prince seems to see them as one thing.
That's the correct way to look at it to me. Marvin might've been more conflicted because he was brought up that way. I see making love as a form of worship.

How did you start doing R&B in a hip-hop context?
To me, it's not melding the two worlds so much as it is exposing where they meet in the middle. To me, Teddy Riley did it with New Jack Swing, which was the bread-and-butter of my high school band Precise. And when I started making hip-hop beats and digging in the crates, I heard things that made me know that shit was there — the Meters and Band of Gypsys sounded like brand-new hip-hop to me. So I started putting the dots together. And my quest was always to take it a step further.

There's a perception that you were deeply bothered at being shown as a sex object in the "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" video.
I'm at peace with it, and I feel there's been too much made out of it. Any issues I may have had were me thinking that it wasn't about the song — that it was all about me appearing in the nude. But now I think people gravitated to how sexy and beautiful the song was. It wouldn't have raised the eyebrows it did if the song wasn't good. The video was just a great accompaniment. 

What's your general feeling about race relations? How much optimism do you have?
I'm an idealist. So in that respect I'm very optimistic. At the same time, awareness is the biggest thing we're missing. When I say "we," I mean us as black folk. 

When I was coming up, popular tastes bent toward consciousness — the Rakims of the world, and the Public Enemys, and the Boogie Down Productions. Discovering Malcolm X was trendy. So if there's things in the world you want to change, you first have to make those changes within yourself. I hate to sound like a Hallmark card, or like "Man in the Mirror," but that really is the truth [laughs].

But what should be done in the face of entrenched racism and institutional corruption? What can artists do?
The first and best thing is to speak about it and sing about it. Aretha Franklin was as important to the civil-rights movement as Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Artists can choose to take on the tremendous amount of responsibility we have, or choose to ignore it. I can't knock a motherfucker for not singing what I feel like I should sing. But I know it's time for me to say it.

At the same time, your live show isn't all that political.
I never want to feel like I'm preaching. I do feel music is a ministry, but I'm not trying to make myself Bob Marley or nothing like that [laughs]. Motherfuckers get themselves in trouble that way — when you put yourself on that pedestal, people don't expect you to be human.

What do you make of current hip-hop?
No comment [laughs]. I like Kendrick Lamar. I like that album.

There's a striking commonality between "Black Messiah" and "To Pimp a Butterfly."
Mm, that's dope. He's jacked into the roots, he respects the lineage. The timing of both was kind of uncanny — it was almost a sign: Motherfuckers are making some shit that's relevant to the times.

What do you want the next few years of your career to look like?
I want to do what Yahweh is leading me to do. Do I know fully what that is? No, I don't. I'm trying to keep myself open, my heart open, to receive and to know what that is. But I do want to put a lot of music out there. I feel like, in a lot of respects, that I'm just getting started.