, December 16th, 2014 14:28
Soul fans have been waiting 14 years for D'Angelo to make more music after the impossibly great Brown Sugar LP and 2000's Voodoo. Back then D'Angelo was the high priest of what was dubbed neo-soul, among Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Guru's Jazzamatazz, J Dilla, The Roots, Jill Scott, Bilal and A Tribe Called Quest, who all dragged the roots of soul music and gave it a retro-futuristic twist. It was fresh, contemporary R&B, but steeped in 70s funk, bebop, hi-life and hip hop. It was also heavily conscious, treading the line between the sacred and carnal, making music to inspire the mind as well as make you drop your drawers.
D'Angelo appeared on the scene with a body carved out of granite, coming on with the dreamer-politics of Marvin Gaye when he grew out his hair and tracks like 'Brown Sugar' and 'Lady' immediately hit the spot, but at the same time, his torso was distracting from his music. The infamous 'Untitled' video and shirtless photoshoots, coupled with his superhuman musical talent and heavy tenderness, saw D'Angelo being the perfect man for a million wet-dreams.
He was gifted, toned and deep – he was, for a period, the ultimate performer to those that were hip to it. To cement his place in people's hearts even further, for the most part, he didn't trouble the charts – everyone felt like they'd discovered D'Angelo all for themselves. D'Angelo was ours, and ours only. Then, after years of cred, 'Voodoo' went to number one on the Billboard charts and D was all set to become a bona-fide superstar.
And then everything stopped dead.
All these things are present and reflected on in D'Angelo's newest album, Black Messiah. Again, we find him in reflective mood, still wooing you at every step with grooves steeped in soul music's royalty. D'Angelo's love affair with Marvin, Luther Vandross, Prince, Gladys Knight, Eddie Kendricks, John Coltrane and Nina Simone is still present and correct. For those who want a throwback album, there's certainly enough to make you purr.
However, this time around, he's cleared some space for some sludgy guitar, channelling the brilliant gonzo-soul of George Clinton and the refried fuzz of The Temptations' 'Ball Of Confusion'. All these things are still thrown into the D'Angelo filter, applied liberally over that loose, chunky rhythm section that he made his own. Now, a couple of decades after he first crashed into the collective consciousness, D'Angelo has some things he wants to address from his past, as well as dealing with some issues which are very timely indeed.
D'Angelo has had problems with addiction, a near fatal car crash and he's spoken at length of the sexual objectification of himself, which combined, forced his lengthy exile. Always considerably more sensitive than his peers, the pressure of the high praise that came with Voodoo and Brown Sugar wouldn't have helped. He went into isolation and one of the things that haunted him were the catcalls from female fans. When he started to re-emerge, some hailed the return of one of the finest musicians of his generation – others noticed the size of his waistband.
However, the latter is irrelevant now. In the time away, D'Angelo has bigger things to contend with – black consciousness, politics and rebuilding a platform to withstand the re-emergence of his huge talent. In the middle of the huge protests in America, railing against police brutality and represented by the Ferguson and 'I Can't Breathe' movements (among the many others), D'Angelo's album emerges with: "All we wanted was a chance to talk, 'stead we only got outlined in chalk." Concerning his infamous physique, on 'Back In The Future (Part 1)', we hear D'Angelo say: "So if you're wondering what shape I'm in, I hope it ain't my abdomen that you're referring to." While taking names and numbers, in many respects, the LP is the same D'Angelo everyone loved and rooted for, but there's a renewed strength in him now. The demons he's not dealt with, he's dealing with and, better yet, he's regained his need to seduce, be it literal or sonically.
On 'Really Love', he's made one of his finest songs. It is so heavy-lidded and potent that the first time you listen to it, all your clothes will drop off. Then, when you inevitably rewind it back to the beginning and he sings "when you call my name, when you love me gently", there's a very strong chance you'll be pregnant, regardless of your gender. With 'Sugah Daddy' and 'Betray My Heart', the groove is so irresistible and so unmistakably his, that they only serve to show us just what we've been missing all these years. In the LP closer, 'Another Life', he's dreamier than ever, complete with a comeback of the '70s funk electric sitar, which is a very, very welcome return. On '1000 Deaths', we see D'Angelo at his most muscular, with a dirty-fingernailed funk which kicks off like fire, with a rant about Jesus being black, rather than a "blue eyed, paled skinned cracker Christ!", before fuzz and delay swamps the speakers. Turns out D'Angelo is as inventive with six strings as he is on the keys.
While R&B in 2014 is in a digital frame of mind, D'Angelo has come along with his old analogue equipment and tape hiss, and, like his first records, decided to not concern himself too much with what anyone else is doing, in favour of just doing him; and that's not a slight on new music, or D'Angelo making music that reacts and kicks against the new – Black Messiah has landed at the perfect time in R&B/soul music where it is strong and diverse enough to push on, and be at ease with its heritage. This is an album that D'Angelo needed to make. Black Messiah is an album a lot of soul fans have been needing to hear. Talking about the LP, D'Angelo says: "Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. It can be misunderstood. Many will think it's about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I'm calling myself a Black Messiah. For me, the title is about all of us. It's about the world. It's about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.
"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 change happen.
"It's not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them. Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album 'Black Messiah' creates a landscape there these songs can live to the fullest. 'Black Messiah' is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader."
Thing is, D'Angelo has wrestled with the devil and, regardless of the album, it is great to have him back. Thankfully, it is a huge pleasure and a relief that this comeback is so good, so strong. And now, he finds himself in the beginnings of something of a neo-ish revival, with the likes of the Lion Babe and Kali Uchis, Prince's 'Breakfast Can Wait' jam and of course, Kendrick Lamar's socially conscious, 70s love letter, 'i'. Black Messiah is part 'What's Goin' On', part 'Let's Get It On', and well worthy of sitting alongside D'Angelo's brilliant back catalogue. Here's to his future and, by God it is good to have him back.