By Martin Smith | 22 December 2014
It’s been a long time coming, 14 years to be precise. D’Angelo released his last studio album, “Voodoo” in 2000. Then like a bolt from the blue and with very little fanfare “Black Messiah” by D’Angelo and the Vanguard was released last Monday (15 December).
Even his record label said he wouldn’t be releasing anything until 2015, so why the sudden rush? The answer to this question can be found in the album’s thoughtful and powerful linear notes.
Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. Many will think it is 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 an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.
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.
To say that D’Angelo takes his time producing music is an understatement, in a career spanning 20 years he has only released three albums, “Brown Sugar” (1994), “Voodoo” (2000) and now “Black Messiah.
His musical output may be sparse but the quality is exceptional, “Black Messiah” is as good if not better than his previous albums and it jumps off where “Voodoo” left off.
D’Angelo is fearless in his use of different styles of music, “Black Music” is a gumbo of soul, funk, jazz, folk and flamenco.
This album is a return to themes explored by Marvin Gaye, in his politically charged masterpiece “What’s Going On” (1971) and the sexually charged album “Let’s Get it On” (1973).
Marvin’s ‘What’s Going On’ reflected on the tragedy of the Vietnam War, poverty and the destruction of the planet. D’Angelo covers similar themes but has given them a contemporary hardness reflecting the brutality of the current situation in the US.
For example, the track “1,000 Deaths” opens with a speech by Khalid Muhammad, a former member of the Nation of Islam, he denounces the white image of Jesus and calls for “Jesus, the black revolutionary”. Khalid was expelled from the Nation of Islam in 1993 for making a disgusting speech attacking Jews and gays. The track also samples the Black Panther member Fred Hampton addressing a meeting.
On “The Charade” D’Angelo denounces police violence, this is a heartfelt cry of despair for Michael Brown, Eric Garner and all the other victims of police brutality. This is a strident civil-rights anthem for the 21st Century.
All we wanted was a chance to talk, instead, we only got outlined in chalk.
Feet have bled, a million miles we’ve walked.
Revealing at the end of the day the charade.
“Till It’s Done (Tutu)” D’Angelo laments at our failure to save the planet and there is a reference to soldiers, sons and daughters, missing, presumed dead, “Do we even know what we’re fighting for?” D’Angelo cries. This is Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) all rolled into one.
When Marvin released “Let’s get it On” one reviewer called it “A carnal feast” another “An unabashed paean to fucking”. But under the froth, the lyrics revealed a deeply traumatised artist struggling to overcome the religious guilt and confusion he felt about sex and his sexuality and the hedonistic life he led.
D’Angelo also sings a number of exquisite love ballads on “Black Messiah” – “Sugar Daddy”, “Betray My Heart” and “Another Life”. They too could be categorised as your typical R’n’B lover man fare, but listen carefully to the lyrics and you discover they too are morbid and riddled with guilt. D’Angelo has never come to terms with being an R’n’B heartthrob.
D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” is one of the essential albums of 2014, it is a protest album for the ages.