Early Sunday evening, in a hotel bar 12 stories above Manhattan, Questlove did something many people — including, surely, he — thought might never happen: he pressed play on a new album from the elusive, inscrutable, beloved and revered R&B maestro D'Angelo.
It’s called Black Messiah, as was announced this past Friday, and it’s officially billed to "D'Angelo and the Vanguard." But the small listening party — a joint effort between Red Bull Music Academy, which has helped keep D'Angelo in the news in recent years, RCA, his label, and the organizers behind the Afropunk music festival — revealed a full suite of information. The 12-track album was released digitally late Sunday night and features contributions from Questlove, Q-Tip, bassist Pino Palladino, drummer James Gadson and Parliament Funkadelic collaborator Kendra Foster (the latter credited as a co-writer on eight songs).
There is also, of course, the music.
"It’s a passion project, and it’s everything," Questlove told the audience. "I don’t really want to give a hyperbolic or grandiose statement, but it’s everything. It’s beautiful, it’s ugly, it’s truth, it’s lies. It’s everything."
Black Messiah is everything we might have expected from the man who created 2000’s Voodoo; a warm and languid record about love, loss, lust and doubt that takes decades of funk and soul and lets them stew and simmer until the music starts to bubble. Like Voodoo, this one moves as fast as spilled molasses, with guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and horns rubbing up against each other in a half-drunk waltz. Floating above it all are D'Angelo's vocals, pulling strength from a quaver and sounding as immaculate as ever.
But the album is also being billed as his most political yet. The cover features a photo of outstretched arms from an unnamed demonstration, and in a booklet handed out at the event, D'Angelo cites recent protests from around the world as inspiration. "It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen," he wrote. Questlove had a more cinematic comparison, calling the album the "Apocalypse Now of black music."
It’s true that the album features some of his most explicitly political lyrics: "All we wanted was a chance to talk, 'stead we only got outlined in chalk / Feet have bled a million miles we've walked, revealing at the end of the day, the charade," D'Angelo sings on "The Charade." But D'Angelo has sung before about American society past and present, especially how our country's treatment of black people throughout its history informs his feelings about his own uneasy upward mobility.
In that sense, the most fiery of Black Messiah's tracks will feel familiar, even "1000 Deaths," which sounds like a D'Angelo song caught up in a tornado. The raging, distorted guitars are its own form of rebellion, but the song's nervousness about D'Angelo's role in the world is reminiscent of Voodoo's "Devil’s Pie." "I can’t believe I’m so caught up in the thrill," sings the musician. "Ain't nothin' gonna change my will."
Yet much of Black Messiah — especially its second half — is about love and sex, as same as it ever was. For an album with a backstory as long as the expectations are high, the album provides a remarkably soft and agreeable landing.
"I really wanna play the record," Questlove said at one point. "That’s where all the answers are."
He wasn’t lying.