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 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.”