D’Angelo and the Vanguard, ‘Black Messiah’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
The soul magician has somehow enchanted us again. D'Angelo and the Vanguard arrive right on time with the release of ‘Black Messiah,’ a meticulously crafted, funkdafied third studio LP from the singer.
For more than a decade, fans yearned for his soul-drenched vocals. An out-of-the-blue listening session for the LP, which occurred Sunday night (Dec. 14), revealed official album art and a lyrics book -- this was the real deal with no more painful speculation.
After all this time, why would D’Angelo release the mysterious opus now? In recent months, concerned citizens are rising up against the ills of society as seen with protests internationally against police misconduct. The album’s title is a mirror of what D’Angelo has felt and witnessed in these evolving times.
“Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album,” D’Angelo writes on his album artwork. “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 all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black messiah.”
He mentions recent uprisings in Ferguson, Mo., Egypt and the Occupy Wall Street movements as inspirations. “Black Messiah is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
During his time away, the 40-year-old had to stand up to his own demons. From substance abuse, a car accident to weight gain -- little by little fans began to write him off. His downward spiral followed the release of his critically-acclaimed 2000 sophomore album, ‘Voodoo.’
His classic music video for his single 'How Does It Feel?' shows a statuesque D'Angelo staring into the camera as he licks his lips and mouths the sensual lyrics. It was the ultimate thirst trap when it debuted -- and still his upon watching. Album sales increased, but Michael Archer found himself in a nightmare he could not wake up from. "I think that's the thing that got me in a lot of trouble: me trying to just be Michael, the regular old me from back in the day, and me fighting that whole sex-symbol thing," D told GQ magazine in a 2012 interview.
The fall of a musical genius is not uncommon. Many are unable to return to a favorable public eye. But D’Angelo continues to be an enigma. In 2012, he performed his first show in 12 years in Stockholm, Sweden, and in the months to come, performed in dozens of cities all over the world. Earlier this year, he spoke at a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in New York, a rare occurrence in itself. Seeming upbeat, he still remained vague about the direction of his future album and when it was actually coming.
But here we are.
The follow-up to 'Voodoo' (2000) is a continuous stream of D's own brand of funk, rock and roll, soul and gospel jam sessions. Several records were co-written and co-produced by fellow Soulquarians Q-Tip and Questlove of the Roots. Kendra Foster, who sang backup for D'Angelo and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic (one of the singer’s influences), assisted on several cuts as well. D’Angelo, who appeared in the documentary, ‘Finding the Funk’ in 2013, channels funk greats such as Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins and Prince on the record.
In sound, D remains a purist and loyal. The album was recorded in analog, adding a warm residue to each of the moving 12 tracks. The record is a vacuum of thicker and richer textured cuts than what appeared on ‘Voodoo’ and his debut, ‘Brown Sugar.’ His harmonies are layers of his own vocals with runs that take the listener to church. His slurry vocal performance further adds to his mystery. But his falsetto and infamous screams hit the right notes, showing no sign of wear or tear.
‘Black Messiah’ isn’t merely a protest album; it is more so an anthology of love stories and deep spiritual epiphanies.
The album opens with 'Ain't That Easy,’ a jittery, guitar-led track in which D'Angelo sweet talks his way to forgiveness. "I tell you sincerely. I need the comfort of your lovin' / To bring out the best in me," he croons. On the rock-tinged ‘1000 Deaths,’ D gets revolutionary about religion, while his voice receives a static-like treatment. "Yaweh, Yehushua / He don't want no coward soldier / Aaah stick it in the golden sand," he preaches.
The singer continues on this wave with 'The Charade,' a record of politics and poetics that call out society's ills. "All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road which we relay on / Inundated by media, virtual mind f---s in streams," he sings.
D has his mind and pockets tied up on 'Sugah Daddy,' his first single. The gold digger has one over on him with this swinging, hand-clapping key-led effort. "Lawd, lawd /You say you wanna be the one she chooses to star in her meaningless romance," he smoothly hums.
Listen to D'Angelo & the Vanguard’s ‘Sugah Daddy’
'Really Love' has the ability to freeze time and woo you in. The sway-inducing love song is a beautiful moment on the album; one that is all too rare these days. "When you look at me / I open up instantly / I fall in love so quickly / Doo doo wah, I'm in really love with you," he hypnotically beckons.
On ‘Prayer,’ bell gongs, drunken drums and weeping guitar licks loop as D'Angelo recites his own version of ‘The Lord's Prayer.’ "And all this confusion around me / Give me peace," he cries. He gets more philosophical on 'Till It's Done (Tutu)' with insightful ponderings such as, "Question ain't do we have resources to rebuild / Do we have the will?"
Overall, ‘Black Messiah’ doesn’t bring a totally new sound, but it does disrupt the industry. Among the current crop of electronic-based popular music, it is an oasis. The record is timeless, raw and real and crafted in musicianship that further pulls D’Angelo’s genius to the forefront. He has a deeper alignment with himself as an artist and the relationship he has with his music. Those who were cynical of his return are proven entirely wrong this time. Perhaps this is a lesson to never rush the greats in their process, even if it takes nearly 15 years.
Much has changed in the world of R&B, but it’s clear D’Angelo is still delivering the addictive sonic brown sugar that got him here in the first place.
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