If D'Angelo's last album, 2000's Voodoo, represents his first big step into a sonic abyss that widened the gap between himself and his mainstream soul contemporaries, his latest, Black Messiah, released Sunday, places him on planet all by himself; and that's a beautiful thing.
The timing for the release of Black Messiah is perfect. Artists are circumventing traditional marketing campaigns and using other means to get their music directly to their fans; whether via mixtapes, surprise releases, or reality TV promo -- and it's working.
Though Voodoo was quite unorthodox with extended, live-recorded versions of songs, it still had enough radio-friendly offerings to appease the masses. Virgin Records could not have been happier with tracks like "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" and its accompanying video D'Angelo filmed in the buff that quickly gave the project a viral boost.
On Black Messiah, D'Angelo & the Vanguard keeps it underground teaming with Q-Tip, ?uestlove, Kendra Foster, Pino Palladino and James Gadson. It sounds like he's been away for 14 years, holed up in a studio, detoxing from the music business, and decidedly only making the kind of records he wants to make.
This is not R&B-hip-hop about club life and the hotel afterparty. It's an all-night jam session in a jook joint. Actually, most of the vocals on the first half of the album are indecipherable. He sounds raspy and muffled as he seemingly rambles, repeating the words, but the moodiness works with the rich funky textures that at times feel inspired by Parliament, Prince, and Rufus.
The controversy of the album's Black Messiah title and album cover (which features a crowd of people with raised fists, possibly uniting in a state of protest) are not reflected in the majority of the lyrical content. It's mostly displayed in his refusal to deliver the status quo.
The songs with the most audible lyrics are about various stages of love. On the sweet and simple "Really Love," he thanks a woman: "Girl, you're patient with me." Arguably, the prettiest track is "Betray My Heart," which employs cowbells and keys as he pledges, "I will never change my heart" and "I'll take nothing in place of you." On "The Door" he tells an ex, "I told you don't lock yo self out that door."
But he's got more than romance on his mind. "Back to the Future (Part 1)" conveys a desire for it to be "the way it was," and tells listeners not to be consumed with those things superficial: "If you're wondering what shape I'm in," he sings, "I hope it ain't my abdomen that you're referring to." He makes some political statement on "Till It's Done (Tutu)" by posing a series of rhetorical questions such as, "Do we even know what we're fighting for?" and "Where do we come from?"
He recites a portion of the Lord's Prayer on "Prayer" while also asking for redemption and to be delivered from all "this confusion around me," over music that trades gospel undertones for funk and wailing electric guitars.
The Black Messiah title is inspired by current events, he said on Sunday in a statement distributed at a listening session in New York. "Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album," he writes. "It can be easily misunderstood. Many will think it's about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I'm calling myself a Black Messiah. For me, the title is about all of us. It's about the world. It's about an idea we can aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah."
He continues, "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. It's not about praising one charismatic leader, but celebrating thousands of them. Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader."