Let’s start with the obvious, people — something about D’Angelo’s music makes clothes just fall off of folks. Although his long-awaited third album is about far more than sex, you’ve got to address the fact head on — it’s where D’Angelo’s troubles began last time anybody heard from him. A lot’s happened to society’s attitudes about making love since the R&B singer released Voodoo, the great Bedroom Record of 2000 — we stopped being embarrassed by Internet porn and stocked up on copies of “50 Shades of Grey”, we gawked at Janet’s wardrobe malfunction then barely batted an eye at Miley’s twerking, we went from being a culture that was afraid to get naked to being Naked and Afraid (and the afraid part seems to be fading by the minute.)
But while our entire planet was busy getting busy, D’Angelo has been anything but. He fell completely off the grid. He released no new music in almost 15 years. He struggled with substance abuse, and by all accounts, is lucky to even be alive. What we didn’t know until last Monday’s surprise release of Black Messiah was that while our nation’s erotic ethos has gotten freakier and even more unhinged, D’Angelo’s been cultivating a body of work as astonishing in its good taste as it is in its inexorable pull. D’Angelo’s been through his own share of hellish changes, but the music on this record still feels like emotional and physical bedrock, representing the truest and most cultured encapsulation of male libido since…well, Voodoo, and serving as evidence to one man’s artistic passions, moral struggles, and perseverance.
From the swampy bass and sweaty hand claps of opening track “Ain’t That Easy”, there’s plenty of reassurance for the nervous — it’s back. That murky, lurching, glorious, knotted sound of perfection, a strut of soul, psychedelia and southern-fried gospel that feels born from seedy, speakeasy basements but arcs heavenward towards transcendence. Muffled horns and a descending piano riff propel the track forward like an ever-so arrhythmic heartbeat while a double-tracked D’Angelo croons sweet truth: “I need the comfort of your lovin’/ To bring out the best in me.” Beginning with “Back to the Future (Part I),” a four-song stretch on the back side of Black Messiah delivers a slow-burn, erogenous fugue reminiscent of the best of Voodoo, but even amidst that ecstacy, D’Angelo acknowledges things are a bit different now: “I know you’re wondering where I’ve been / Wondering ’bout the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen.” Turns out it’s been anything but easy for the 40-year old singer whom critic Robert Christgau once labeled “R&B Jesus.”
Most of D’Angelo’s wounds since 2000 have been self-inflicted — his career-numbing sexualization by women the result of the washboard abs he revealed in the video to “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” his addiction to coke, weed and booze the result of his desire to escape objectification, and his near fatal car accident in 2006 the outcome of drug use. Throw in a sex solicitation charge in 2010 and you begin to see D’Angelo, the son and grandson on pentacostal preachers, as the tortured soul-searcher that he is. It was the death of friend and legendary hip hop producer J Dilla in 2006 that pulled D’Angelo back from the brink. He finally stuck with rehab (on his third stint). He came to terms with the tension between his image and artistry. He even taught himself how to play guitar. Black Messiah slowly began to take shape, one song at a time, informed by a deepening maturity.
So yeah, it’s a sexy record, but unlike Voodoo, which constantly hovered around an air temperature of 98.6 degrees, where the human body goes languid and inhibitions liquefy, the most interesting parts of Black Messiah dance just above and below that range, exploring cloudier shades of anger and tension. Highlight “The Charade” wraps a swaggering, Prince and the Revolution-style groove and electric sitar around around a memorable lament: “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk”. Funk bomb “1000 Deaths” is D’Angelo’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” — the sound of the black community’s outrage manifested through indecipherable lyrics, clipped guitars and a hornet’s nest of feedback propelled by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s bullish drum track. This is Ferguson, New York City, and a nation’s cracking racial fault lines all laid bear on record.
It’s ironic that after a decade’s worth of delays, the world’s explosive social climate actually persuaded D’Angelo to release Black Messiah earlier than he had intended, but the move makes sense. It’s a swirling, powder keg of a record that captures 2014’s zeitgiest of global unrest and speaks to everyone, irregardless of race, income, or geography. In Black Messiah’s liner notes, D’Angelo is careful to contextualize the album’s controversial, egocentric title as an inclusive vision:. “It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.” Like Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone’s greatest chronicles of societal conflict, this album has a timeless authenticity and incisive urgency that spans musical genres and cuts through the bullshit.
No clear, identifiable faces are visible on the cover of Black Messiah, only hands and fists raised in unison, equal parts protest and worship. It’s the antithesis of Voodoo’s cover, an image of a young, chiseled D’Angelo, at the peak of his powers but ripe for the fall. He’s come a long way from those days and, like his music, is older, wiser and as seductive as ever. “I used to get real high, now I just get a buzz.” he admits, still gliding along that slippery slope between the sacred and the profane. Like his 70’s forebears, D’Angelo knows some truths are just as eternal as old habits are hard to break — people are still getting it on and riots are still going on. Always will be. He is simply here to bear witness to those testaments, find meaning in the moments and deliver their message.