D'Angelo And The Vanguard
Let's get one thing out of the way: The titular Black Messiah is not D'Angelo.
"Black Messiah is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader," explains the Virginia-born nu-soul funkster in the liner notes for his third album.
This is not the equivalent of Yeezus, last year's ego-boosting missive by Kanye West. If anything, this is the yin to West's yang: more elusive, gentler, but infinitely more powerful.
In incubation for 14 years after the critical breakthrough Voodoo (2000), Black Messiah was released after the recent social upheaval in the United States (the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri; scuffles with the police in New York).
What's going on?
Indeed, the album feels like a 21st-century follow-up to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971), or Sly & The Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On (1971), both responses to the dystopia of Vietnam War-era America.
"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 decided to make change happen," adds D'Angelo in a statement.
Black Messiah, hence, gets you grooving to the beat while teasing grey cells.
It makes you inquire within and without.
It makes you stand up and listen.
It calls for action, but never mindless retaliation.
It delves deep into the core that makes everyone human.
A few of the overtly political anthems contextualise the recent tragedies.
The Charade is a jeremiad on racism, as he delivers a devastating rhyming couplet over a cavalier jam of handclaps, drums and electric funk riffage: "All we wanted was a chance to talk/'Stead we've only got outlined in chalk."
The song 1000 Deaths samples a harrowing speech by New Black Panther Party chairman Khalid Abdul Muhammad who imagines a black Jesus.
D'Angelo splices the speech with a hot stew of muddied bass and jackhammer percussion, before he comes on as a cathedral of multitracked D'Angelos who intone: "I bear a witness to this game for ages/And if I stare death in face, no time to waste."
The music itself is astounding, a genre-bending, time-travelling machine, through funk, soul, nu-soul, experimental rock and R&B, as if it's the most natural thing in the world.
It's like OutKast, but without all that distracting pyrotechnics.
Even when the man opens up his heart, he dismantles/subverts the sexy hot bod image that has been attached to him since he appeared half nude on the cover of Voodoo.
"I'm not an easy man to overstand, you feel me/But girl you patient with me," he coos in a falsetto over Spanish guitars, jazzy trombones and lazy drums in Really Love.
It's the summation of a sensual, incandescent, beautiful, dark, bright, vulnerable and strong record.
This article was first published on December 25, 2014.
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