It’s the vulnerability that you notice first. Soul men aren’t supposed to show it – when you think of Wilson Pickett, Teddy Pendergrass or even Jaheim what springs to mind is alpha male testosterone and self-confidence, certainly not crippling self-doubt. But maybe if your last album came out in January 2000 some trepidation at the release of a follow up is understandable, even if the level for someone as talented as D’Angelo is extraordinary. This is an artist who, on “Back in the Future (pts 1 and 2)” seemingly doubts that his audience is still waiting “The season may come when your luck may just run out, And all that you’ll have is a memory…” a song whose refrain is “I just wanna go back, baby, back to the way it was…”. Add to this the verse “If you win, no matter if you lose. You got to come back again… I been wondering if I can ever again…” and it’s not hard to see how “Black Messiah” was in gestation for a shade under 15 years.
It all seems a long way from the fresh faced young man who looked out from the booklet of “Brown Sugar”, slightly askew cap in thoughtful artist mode, reminiscent of the young Donny Hathaway to those of us of a certain age. That album was glorious, appearing to chart a way forward from new jack swing and hip hop soul, that fused the modern with the thoughtful lyrics and jazz influences that invigorated so much of 1970s soul. In that context the cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” was telling in mixing the old and the new, D’Angelo’s falsetto and harmonies floating over a heavy beat but keeping the melody strong over it. The originals were fantastic too, the title track has been covered so often, most notably by Ledisi, that it is almost a modern standard. It was in good company with classics like “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine”, “Smooth” and “Lady” to keep it company on what few would argue was one of the greatest albums of the 1990s.
Follow up “Voodoo” was more impressionistic, a qualified success that revealed its finer moments more slowly, taking longer to get into but ultimately falling just short of its illustrious predecessor. Many of the tracks sounded like they were edited down from mammoth jam sessions, and the lip service to the mainstream in the boorish rap cameos from Method Man and Redman on “Left and Right”, impressed only schoolboys from the suburbs. Eventually though, the quality of compositions and playing on tracks like “Spanish Joint”, “The Line”, “Send It On” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” won through over the reservations that some of the album moved too far towards the R&B herd. The last of these songs was a huge hit stateside, the video where the great man took his shirt off getting a lot of attention. Indeed “Back in the Future (Part 1)” on “Black Messiah” suggests much of this was unwelcome, taking a sideswipe at those whose interest was more in his abs than the music “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in, I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to”!
Then, as they say in the movies, time passed. A hell of a lot of time in fact – a soul music “Waiting for Godot” even, where it reached the point that no-one ever really expected to see a new album. For sure there were the odd cameos with the likes of Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor but when, on Monday 15 December 2014, the new album was rush released many of us were rubbing our eyes in disbelief at what had just hit our news feeds. Best of all it was magnificent – like the best bits from “Voodoo” with a clearer link to the classic soul and funk of the likes of Prince and George Clinton. Collaborators are pure quality and include Clinton alumnus Kendra Foster, Questlove and Q-Tip – pretty much a Nu Soul dream team.
The album was scheduled for 2015 but was brought forward apparently in response to the wave of popular civil rights protests that followed the shooting by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner while being restrained by officers in New York. You can understand why D’Angelo saw the synchronicity between these shameful events and his subject matter, take the chorus of “The Charade” for example – “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘Stead we’ve only got outlined in chalk”. Another key track is “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” which steps into “What’s Going On” territory with its compelling lyric describing our world taking in the lack of belonging, environmental pollution and pointless war mongering in a resigned tone along the way. None of this is done in a preachy way, if there is an agenda it is a simple humanist one of mutual respect, but the album is clearly meant to make the listener think and on these terms it succeeds admirably. In one sense you might argue that D’Angelo’s solutions come through the cumulative effect of our own actions – so a love song like “Betray My Heart”’s statement of remaining true to a loved one could, in the great soul/gospel tradition, equally apply to a deity, personal creed or philosophy.
Its not all politics either – the album closer “Another Life” is an absolute killer. A distant cousin of classic period Prince ballads like “Adore”, that closed “Sign ‘O’ the Times”, or the arguably even better “Crucial” that it replaced on that album. Both “Another Life” and “Crucial” use sitars giving a feel akin to the Delfonics and Thom Bell’s “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” or the Stylistics “You are Everything” that is gorgeous soulful magic. Album opener “Ain’t that Easy” is another highlight playing more on the swampy “Voodoo” feel with an ambiguous lyric that, on one level, implores a lover not to leave him, but which conceivably works on the level of D’Angelo facing down his doubts more generally e.g. “See ya’ll know I’ma go with my vibe, You won’t believe all the things you have to sacrifice… Still it’s just a waste of time”. Whatever the truth it’s a great tune and an arresting opening track.
The Prince influence is hinted at in the details elsewhere too – that off kilter drumbeat used to such good effect during the “Around the World in a Day” and “Parade” era crops up occasionally on tracks like “Prayer” or the afore mentioned “Ain’t that Easy”. D’Angelo is clearly a fan having cut an excellent cover of “She’s Always in My Hair”, an “Around the World…” era B-side, but he never lets the influence overwhelm the distinctiveness of his own compositions.
And that really is the point – “Black Messiah” takes and develops elements from his two previous records updating the styles and lyrical concerns for the present day. Yes it harks back to the soul golden age of the 1970s to 1990s but more as a texture to the music than mere pastiche. There really isn’t a weak track throughout the 55 minutes, and if it needs old fashioned concentrated listening to reveal itself, rather than rapid fire sampling, then that is no bad thing. Ultimately “Black Messiah” is a vindication for D’Angelo and the album that his younger self promised to make back in 1995. It’s an unequivocal triumph and a future classic that we will be enjoying for years to come. Just as well really, as the follow up is unlikely to surface before 2029!