“Dude, don’t go around telling everybody, but that’s where D’Angelo lives…”
The house, set back from a quiet street in a nondescript micro-neighborhood in the newly developed forestland southwest of Richmond, VA, was built in the vaulted exurban style. Not quite a McMansion, but big enough to prevent any comparison to the more humble working class cottages located closer in to the city center.
The year was 1998, the comment passing over glasses of rum and coke—three high school kids trying to drink like grown folk—and was mostly forgotten. By that point, I had left modern R&B behind with Boyz II Men and middle school dances, and the only thing I really knew about D’Angelo was a vague notion that he sang about weed (a point in his favor).
A couple of years later, driving away from the remains of a failed career in the Marines, I stopped at a truck stop, seeking something to protect me from the radio of rural North Carolina. They had the Nelly album, a whole slew of Now That’s What I Call Music-type pop mixes, and Voodoo. I was headed back to Richmond, anyway, so I figured D’Angelo would make for good road company.
I had expected some well-produced, essentially mainline R&B, pleasant and forgettable; something to keep my ragged inner self from immolating on the dark roads, but got something altogether different, deeply familiar and utterly alien.
But, as incredible—and possibly life-saving—as that album was, I remember thinking that I couldn’t wait to hear what D’Angelo would do when he really hit his groove.
14 long years later—years full of war, fear, and confusion; paranoid and angry years—D’Angelo has given us the album that we all knew he was capable of, and then taken those lofty expectations and shredded them for the paltry little things they were.
Black Messiah is everything you’ve heard it is. It is a stunning achievement in songcraft and the esoteric art of analog music production. It is an expansive collection of influences—the opening of “Back To The Future (Part I)” somehow evokes both Dr. Dre and Bela Fleck at the same time, before the song itself builds into a groove that sounds something like if Marvin Gaye and the Grateful Dead had collaborated on an album produced by the Dungeon Family—while still claiming a sound that is utterly unique to D’Angelo.
The opening track, “Ain’t That Easy” initiates the listener, subtle waves of feedback evoking the inevitable ghost of Hendrix, becoming a melodic chant—tones of Funkadelic—before D’Angelo’s voice takes command of the song, sits down next to the listener and lights a blunt. “1000 Deaths,” written with Prince, is an intense, madcap meditation on the tumult present in our era of civilizations on the brink, followed by the more musically soothing—but perhaps more lyrically disturbing—“The Charade.”
The ragtimey, piano-driven song “Sugah Daddy” follows, all understated James Brown funk, before “Really Love,” a song which particularly showcases the musical alchemy Black Messiah achieves.
A soft orchestral swell builds and gives way to classical guitar tones while a woman’s voice whispers French, then you hear these tiny little piano runs before the whole thing forms like Voltron into a song that hits your chest like a hammer and your ears like a glass of sweet tea in August.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to Black Messiah since it came out, and every spin still reveals entire sonic neighborhoods I had missed entirely, particularly sharp lyrical turns, and clever songwriting chops, all displaying a level of genius that certain other pop culture figures can only envy.
Let us hope it doesn’t take D’Angelo 14 years to make his next album, but if it does, we’ll still be here, ready and waiting—possibly playing Black Messiah on repeat.