'Black Messiah': D'Angelo releases a studio masterpiece 15 years in the making

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Black Messiah by D'Angelo and the Vanguard
"Black Messiah" by D'Angelo and the Vanguard (© 2014 RCA Records.)

D'Angelo, the reclusive soul music master, has turned in his first studio album since 2000. In 2000, D'angelo released Voodoo, a magnum opus that brought together the strongest voices in the vanguard of black music to release one of the most inspiring and mysterious albums of our generation. D'Angelo and his close musical partner Questlove claimed the record was their "audition tape for Prince."

It did sound like the kind of record you were always hoping Prince would put out. D'Angelo's multi-layered vocals moved effortlessly from hums, whispers to inspiring verses that demanded to be held in the same company of the finest rappers of the era. The ensemble that D'Angelo and Questlove built around themselves was the first group to bring the unquantized, slinky, and greasy style of production that was in many musicians' headphones from Jay-Dee's hip-hop production into the rehearsal room of live musicians.

The record was a high point for all of the musicians involved, and many went on to great careers based largely on the sonic footprint of Voodoo. Since then, though, D'Angelo himself hasn't released a proper studio album. Yesterday, D'Angelo released Black Messiah, his first studio album since Voodoo — and it is another masterpiece.

D'Angelo is in the company of Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Maxwell, and few others for attracting the most sought-after musicians in the world and giving them the space to do what they do best. Black Messiah is filled with gorgeous bass performances ("Really Love" is a standout) that ooze out slowly across spare and infectious drum parts. The keyboards, horns, strings, and guitar decorate and underline the composition while leaving space for D'Angelo to share some of his finest compositions to date.

One of the few criticisms surrounding the release of Voodoo was that the melodies and some of the lyrics came out sounding like an afterthought behind the intoxicating grooves. This criticism was especially strong from his fans who loved his debut album, Brown Sugar, which was an achievement in songwriting but broke very little new ground sonically. On this record, even when the arrangements or the groove are skeletal, there's clearly meat on the bones in a songwriting sense.

I'm on my third listen currently — too soon to pick forever favorites — but "The Charade" stands out. The song takes aim at at the lack of ears, empathy, and solidarity that many communities are facing in America. The chorus doesn't pull any punches in depicting how bad things have gotten: "All we wanted was a chance to talk/ 'stead we only got outlined in chalk, feet have bled a milliwon miles we've walked/ revealing at the end of the day, the charade." The song gives chills every time, but it's best to read the lyrics right along with it.

I doubt that this record will be the same line in the sand that Voodoo was. The fans and musicians who have become Voodoo disciples can be heard all over the radio in many different styles.

D'Angelo's influence on music has already been cemented — but it is amazing to hear him turn out an even moving set of compositions that speak directly to the turmoil our country is facing. In the lyric book D'Angelo says that the album is "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 change happen. It's not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them."

It's been almost 15 years of waiting, but this record couldn't be more on time.

What do you think of the album? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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