D’Angelo’s Black Messiah is magical

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D'Angelo 'Black Messiah'

It’s fitting that D’Angelo decided to share the accolades of his album with his band, the Vanguard, since the meaning of the word is to lead the way in new ideas or developments. Years after his last masterpiece still had music fans from all facets of life fiending for its follow-up, the Internet nearly blew the fuck up when the announcement was made official that Black Messiah was releasing imminently through digital channels at midnight on Monday, December 15. Yet his latest album is doing just that: showing musicians and fans that music can be empowering, therapeutic, and funky. Formulaic songwriting may allow acts to release albums on a tighter, structured schedule. Bathing in the ideas and their execution can lead to a project collapsing under its own weight… or produce outcomes that are far beyond what anyone could have expected. Thankfully, we got the latter.

It’s difficult to keep people interested in your music between albums for a couple of years, let alone after a decade and a half. Furthermore, after only producing two full-length albums, it’s even more of a testament that he had built such a devoted following that people wanted new music from him THIS bad. On the Saturday before the album released, a press release had been issued that Red Bull Music Academy would be offering a free download to the first 1,000 people who jumped on their website AT THREE AM EST (!) for a preview track of “Sugah Daddy” from the album. Less than an hour later, at a time when most people had gone well into their REM sleep, all of the downloads had been claimed. The rest of the world was going to have to accept a stream.

Granted, if you had been following throughout the years, you would have heard a live version of the track performed at the BET Awards in 2012. Other tracks had also leaked either courtesy of Questlove (“Really Love” in an earlier take from what appeared on the album) or elsewhere. A seven-plus minute version of “1000 Deaths” exists out in the interwebs that doesn’t yet have the Dr. Khalid Muhammad sample during the beginning. That sample recalls the spirited opening of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” speech as given by Civil Rights activist Thomas “TNT” Todd. However, aside from a few live shows, many either in NYC or Europe, the lid had been kept pretty tight on the music being constructed.

In an article posted on the New York Times’ site, it paints a picture of the album’s release truly being a last moment decision. One of the albums sound architects, engineer Russell Elevado, is quoted in the piece as saying he had just finished mixing Black Messiah in the last three weeks. That the album was sent off to pressing plants for the CDs to be produced, booklets finished, a preview event was booked and planned with various ephemera made for the Red Bull Music Academy, music sent to download and streaming services, ad discs sent to retail outlets, virtually almost all unbeknownst to the rest of the world is quite a secret to keep under wraps successfully. All parties involved did an astounding job.

The album has been received to rave reviews from various publications from Spin to Pitchfork, Rolling Stone to Grantland, The Guardian to AllMusic, bloggers to message boarders, and everyone in between. With all the positive media attention, it’s surprising that the album didn’t land at the top spot of the Billboard album charts. It settled for the fifth slot with 104,000 sales. Whether or not that had to do with the lack of a typical marketing promotional plan is hard to say, but RCA has to be ecstatic with the exposure it has gotten and the critical and fan reception.

When I went to purchase my copy at a local Best Buy on Tuesday after it had released, I asked a couple of female associates if the album was in stock after not seeing it in the two different New Release sections. Their reaction was humorous. “D’Angelo has a new one?” to which I replied, “Yep.” The confused pair retorted in unison with “THEEEEEEE D’Angelo?” to which I answered with the same response. Both immediately pulled out their smart phones to verify the information. Another employee confirmed that they were out of stock, and I couldn’t have been happier to see an album be sold out that I wanted to purchase. After a quick trip to another major retailer, and the album was in my hands.

I had seen various others’ responses on Twitter from a simple “Thank you D’Angelo” (John Mayer) to “Man it feels so good just to hear this dude’s voice again #dAngelo” (Mayer Hawthorne). Justin Timberlake’s was the best, though, stating, “If y’all need to get at me, too bad… I can’t hear you over this #BlackMessiah.” So now it was my turn.

The album itself sounds absolutely incredible with its rich textures and warm sound. Pino Palladino’s bass gets into your soul; James Gadson, Questlove, and Chris “Daddy” Dave’s drums beat with purpose; Roy Hargrove’s horns are infectious; D’Angelo’s vocals are layered to perfection. And D himself plays a number of instruments throughout as well, as you can find in the booklet or on the album’s official site. While the vocals can be hard to understand, the way they’re put together evokes sheer mood. Don’t fret, though, MetroLyrics can help you with any lines you can’t quite make out on your own.

“Really Love” is just a beautiful love song from its opening strings to the Spanish guitar to its gentle lyrics and breezy feel. While strange that it comes immediately after the funky and romping “Sugah Daddy,” it never feels out of place.

D’Angelo is able to twist and contort his voice to fit the mood he wants to create. “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” sounds like Macy Gray over an organic stew. “1000 Deaths” shows him going from on the edge throughout the verses to boiled-over by the song’s end with his shouts over a wicked guitar solo. And by mid-album, he’s contemplative on “Prayer.”

I can’t possibly do a review of Black Messiah without talking about “Betray My Heart.” Palladino’s bass work is a revelation throughout. The song itself is jazzy throughout its interplay of instruments. Its message of self love is needed in these complicated times.

An album that takes this long to surface shouldn’t work as well as it does. In-sounds change in popular music. To make a timeless album over the course of years is a nearly impossible task. Questlove has compared it to a Black SMiLE, the late ’60s Beach Boys album that was never officially completed due to its complicated nature. A fully authorized final version was released in 2011 with the blessing of the band some forty-plus years after it was originally started. By that measure, fourteen years seems almost rushed.

What really helps Black Messiah jump that hurdle of time is its use of analog equipment with engineers who not only had the talent to handle the job at hand but the patience as well. Russell Elevado and Ben Kane, who both have been dropping nuggets on the album’s creative process on their Twitter feeds. (Kane has even been doing a “12 Days of Black Messiah” breakdown since the album’s release.) Enthusiasts will be happy to know that both have been involved with getting the lacquers cut for the pending vinyl release due February 10, 2015. Let it be noted, though, that the first run is only 5,000 units. So get it while you can.

The neo soul movement, with which D’Angelo is so often identified, has never been one that some of its strongest artists have been comfortable with being associated. As artists they don’t want to be placed in a box of what their music can or should sound like. While the retro sound from the likes of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Sonny Knight & the Lakers, and Mayer Hawthorne, to name but a few, has ridden a wave of acceptance over the last decade, it’s never been quite as commanding as what D’Angelo has been able to conjure in his albums. That’s not to put to shame what those artists have accomplished as they have certainly crafted great music in its own right. D, however, has been able to bridge a generational gap between his influences and his own vision, sounding rooted but fresh.

He notes in the album opener, “Ain’t That Easy,” “I wanna give you somethin’ to feed your mind.” With Black Messiah, it is food that we’ll be eating for a while. The album, while immediately beautiful, also isn’t wholly swallowed. There are layers that reveal themselves even after multiple listens. I haven’t been able to put the album back on the shelf since it came out, even in the midst of needing to familiarize myself with other releases for pending projects.

Over D’Angelo’s three albums, he’s taken us somewhere special on the album’s final track. From Brown Sugar, he took us “Higher” even as he was singing to someone else. On Voodoo, we touched base with “Africa.” A sublime track that oozes pride, it is still, in my opinion, his crown jewel due to its message, vocal delivery, and just a phenomenal musical backdrop. Now with Black Messiah, we are taken to “Another Life” as he watches from afar. As the song crescendos, D belts out a soul-stirring falsetto yawp at the 4:20 mark as he then proceeds to fluctuate between registers as the song winds down in a vocal display that rivals the power of any duet you’ve ever heard. Seriously.

In our fast-paced world, there are already people wondering aloud when his next album will drop. I’ll be the first to admit, I’m fine with digesting this one for a while. Take your time D. If you need years to fine-tune your vision into an album that is this satisfying, it’s already been proven that a legion of fans will be there awaiting its arrival with open arms. In D We Trust.

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  1. “Really Love” song that made me a fan of D’Angelo

    – herein

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