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REVIEW: D’Angelo Returns With The Daringly Different Black Messiah

D'Angelo

Words by Jesse Fairfax

Relying on mystique, a rugged yet sensitive cool aura and actual musical chops, D’Angelo has kept his audience in a trance despite his renowned disappearing acts.  Over the course of nearly two decades, his grand total of 35 released studio recordings include neo-soul’s crowning jewel Brown Sugar, and Voodoo which has been likened to a bohemian Thriller of modern time in its absolute perfection. Showing up at his leisure over the years, the mere prospect of a new album has stirred a frenzy greater than any living black cult figure to walk superstardom’s fringes without fully hitting that mark. With today’s popular sound becoming drastically devoid of substance and his followers gradually settling for adequate replacements including Musiq Soulchild and Frank Ocean, D’Angelo closes out 2014 unleashing Black Messiah as his reintroduction to the hungering masses.

A defining figure for urban culture, D’Angelo’s appeal centers around relatable themes intertwined with his superhuman creative talent. Flawed and human, his down home struggles resonate with listeners who appreciate transparency stripped bare of fantasy. On Voodoo deep cut “The Line” he sung “I know the pressure is on, from every angle, political to personal”, stark foreshadowing preceding the downward spiral resultant from “Untitled” rendering him a sex symbol. Returning to a land where an African-American president has been elected twice (only to be heavily scrutinized by his constituency) and a palpable fear of white artists dominating Hip-Hop exists, the bold term Black Messiah is a timely one.

After recent speculation said that his nearly 15 year hiatus was over, D’Angelo placed the world at a standstill with the feel good leak “Sugah Daddy”, followed by a listening session confirming Black Messiah was real. Since which point, the predominant discussion amongst social media’s buppies and music enthusiasts has been what exactly to make of this excitable return, and ultimately there’s no set answer.  Staying true to his predetermined workflow, D’Angelo continually examines the balance between the secular and spiritual while attempting revolution in line with the greats to excel before him. While sticking to formula, this third time at bat strays from anything he’s attempted before: easily digestible melodies tend to be out of the question and you can forget deciphering the bulk of his words; perhaps a middle finger to safety, convention and people’s expectations.

Though the powerful title suggests he’s here to save the souls of his people, Black Messiah focuses on creating a unique vibe in this paint-by-numbers copycat radio era. The opener “Ain’t That Easy” reels in anyone open to taking this journey with its drenching funk, immediately followed by “1000 Deaths” an avant-garde celebration where D’Angelo exercises his freedom by rocking out with his trademark vocal harmonies and a newfound passion for (occasionally excessive) guitar wailing. “Really Love” (long anticipated after an incomplete version surfaced in 2007) goes over easy compared to the existential crisis of “Till It’s Done”, one of the songs establishing this as his most lyrically abstract release to date. Likening himself to a black renaissance poet, D’Angelo speaks for a nation still burdened by tragedy and injustice with “The Charade”, a true indicator of his leadership.

Reportedly topping charts globally within a day of its release, Black Messiah capitalizes on the niche D’Angelo has carved as the go between for the R&B archetypes of bad boy and silky smooth Casanova.  Channeling his heroes including Prince and Funkadelic this go round, its sudden release has reinforced the manic feeling surrounding his creative output. Though he’s proven he can make quality art with little help, one of the arguable highlights is the finale “Another Life”, a beautiful throwback to 1970’s soul co-piloted by frequent collaborator ?uestlove. Having turned 40 this year with the reputation of being a recluse and a self-saboteur, D’Angelo is more than a singer: he’s a symbol of hope for anyone gravely concerned about music that inspires feeling. Black Messiah is sure to throw newcomers for a loop, meanwhile rabid fans can already be found overcompensating and naysayers are perpetually unimpressed by the spectacle created, all rushed opinions that are truly unnecessary so early on. While we’re glad to finally have him back, we should allow D’Angelo to become comfortable in his own skin again and fully embrace this as a self-indulgent starting point.

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