Depending on the level of Internet vacuum you exist in, you’re likely aware neo soul maestro D'Angelo and his backing band The Vanguard Beyoncé’d a new album, Black Messiah, at midnight on Sunday. His first in 15 years, a long-awaited and much-rumored follow up to 2000’s beloved—okay, legendary—platinum-selling Voodoo. Social media predictably exploded, with celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Questlove and Pharrell gushing and #BlackMessiah trending everywhere trends can trend. Even the media consensus was that it's great. Damn great. So great, in fact, that the Internet hate machine recoiled at its off-character outpouring of kudos and is starting to second-guess itself.
There has to be something wrong with it, right?
The low hanging think piece fruit is a comparison between Messiah and D’Angelo's last album, Voodoo, pitting the two track for track, beat for beat. Spoiler alert: Yes, they are sonically similar. Those with a slightly sleazier bent have dredged up reports of his weight gain, substance abuse, and arrest.
But of course dude's had his ups and downs—it's been 15 years. Children conceived to his smash “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”—and there are no doubt many—are in high school now, getting ready to get down to his music themselves.
This is a record birthed slowly over the course of more than a decade, polished like a creative diamond nugget inside whatever forge burns within D’Angelo's once-sculpted chest. Despite whatever analysis the nanosecond news cycle spews out, it's not for us to understand the ways of his genius. We're here to appreciate it, and those that feel the need to take difference with Messiah simply because it's a thing that happened and they want to get a little attention too should be ignored.
Because, again, it's really, really fucking good. Next level good. "If you don't get it then that's on you" good.
From the plodding, rubbery opening beats of “Ain’t That Easy” to the sparse, soulful, and aspirational “Back to the Future (Part I),” D’Angelo has bucked the trend of releasing an album full of standalone singles vectoring for Vevo views and instead dropped a cohesive album. It’s all in there, building up a complete musical and environmental package, yet without the “concept album” conceit.
“Betray My Heart” noodles through head bobbing guitar loops, and grand finale “Another Life” is a five minute and fifty-eight second Marvin-Gaye-meets-The-Roots-esque jam that leaves you breathlessly wanting more. Speaking of The Roots, Questlove has a presence here, with other heavy collaborators including former Tribe Called Quester Q-Tip and P-Funk’s Kendra Foster.
Recorded, according to the liner notes, on analog tape with primarily vintage gear, the pop-funk-soul-jazziness of it slinks around, infiltrating but not dominating. This isn’t an “in your face” record, this is one that you have to come to terms with on your own. There’s so much layered, lyrically and sonically, that even after upwards of 12 spins its nuances and various lyrical levels are still becoming clear. You can go as deep as you like, or float about on the surface. And of course there are more songs about sex, but D’Angelo also takes on social issues, balancing a song like “Sugah Daddy” (“It’s just the way she’s so raw and uncut / She needs a spankin’ to shake her up”) with “The Charade” (“All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk”).
The album’s liner notes explain the seeming presumptuous Black Messiah moniker, and in doing so the mission behind the music, noting:
“The title is about all of us. It’s about the world. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah” and “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 changes happen… Black Messiah is not one man, it’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
It’s in this message that D’Angelo perhaps unintentionally, reveals the real reason it has taken him 15 years to craft a new masterpiece.
There are countless artists that can create flawless pop music or funky jams that make you dance or grooves to get smooth to. But in a world wracked with environmental turmoil and terrorism and protests against disparity, we needed this. We, the people, needed a soundtrack that is at once soothing and empowering, a call to rise up and also a reason to stay in bed, preferably with someone else, just a little bit longer. D’Angelo isn’t back now because he’s after money or fame or a chance to prove he could “do it again,” he’s back now because, after a decade and a half of watching and waiting, consciously or not, he knew it was simply time.
Now we all need to shut up and listen.