D’Angelo's 'Black Messiah': Worth the Wait

Please welcome back the once-and-future king of neo-soul.
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Please welcome back the once-and-future king of neo-soul.
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D'Angelo celebrated the release of Black Messiah, his long awaited third album, at a listening party scented with smoke from . That's the sort of incense you get when you are revered, when you've made the transition from celebrity to legend, a trick the neo-soul singer pulled off in the most unlikely way. D'Angelo has spent the last decade doing precisely the opposite thing (not putting out music) that his fans wanted him to do (putting out music). Instead of hitting up the Grammys, he went to the wilderness. No one new what to expect if he should return - or if he would return at all.

Two decades have passed since the release of D’Angelo’s debut album Brown Sugar ​made a name for the singer as a hybrid of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Lady's Man,and fifteen years since the video for “Untitled," the hit single from Voodoo, became the purest expression of human sexuality since Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs. Even considering the depth of devotion D’Angelo’s music inspires - fans waited in line for hours to see him headline Brooklyn’s Afropunk Festival this summer - grumblings about the singer’s output and stream of broken album-related promises have because a musical genre unto themselves.

That's all over now. Black Messiah is a powerful record and also, more surprisingly, timely. The man and the album clearly have strong political intentions (a booklet circulated at the release event made explicit reference to collective political action in Ferguson and Egypt), so its release in New York on the same weekend as a huge non-violent protest, the Millions March, is fortuitous. In explanation of the title, liner notes offer the idea that Black Messiah is a “feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”

This album seems like the product of a collective. Compared to the stark, glittering, and self-consciously virtuosic records of today pop stars, Black Messiah is basically crowd-sourced. If anything, D’Angelo’s famous falsetto is buried under the work of others. Take “Sugah Daddy,” a preview of which has been circulating for a couple of days. The first few seconds are syncopated handclaps from at least two pairs of hands. Then comes the piano, looping a funky hook until D’Angelo’s entry, but even during his solo, his words are indistinct, and the band doesn’t back off. There’s a real round-robin effect, a shrinking from a foreground-background model of sound design. The song is an Indian run: Claps, snaps, piano, bass, muted horn and vocal harmonies all lead in turn. Like an LP, the song itself is always revolving. And, it has atmosphere for days - maybe even enough oomph to replace Marvin Gaye’s "Got To Give It Up" as the ultimate party entrance track. 

The Prince of Neo-Soul has returned to us at a time of great need - try and list five prominent male R&B vocalists - and, just as his subjects’ loyalty was beginning to waver, seized the crown (if not the throne). He left a 26 year-old sculpture and returned a 40 year-old man with his voice and creativity intact. Of his return, D’Angelo has said very little beyond one lyric in “Back to the Future (Part 1)”: “If you’re wondering about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to.”

We’re not. The abs are gone, but D’Angelo’s true value was always as an instrument, not an object. 

Photos by Splash News / Corbis