Album of the Week 52-2014: D’Angelo – Black Messiah

When D’Angelo said he rushed through the last phase of ‘Black Messiah’ because of the Ferguson riots, I chuckled. Not that I doubt his sincerity, it’s just that rushing through any phase of an album that’s been fourteen years in the making seems a bit contradictory. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected to hear ‘Black Messiah’ this year anymore. Then suddenly, there it was. The anticipation was justified on account of ‘Voodoo’ being one of the best – if not the best – contemporary R&B records. And ‘Black Messiah’ is once again a masterpiece; almost as good as ‘Voodoo’, albeit an album with a completely different character.

It shows that we’re dealing with the same guy who recorded ‘Voodoo’ in 2000. ‘Black Messiah’ isn’t quite as seductive as ‘Voodoo’, but the album still revolves around extended, groove-based jams with D’Angelo often soaring on top of that with his typical Prince-like falsetto. It isn’t Prince, however, that comes to mind first upon hearing ‘Black Messiah’. The dark, shimmering grooves and socially conscious undertone immediately bring Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’ to mind. And like that justified classic, ‘Black Messiah’ is pretty much the work of one man. Big names such as Roots drummer Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, Funkadelic singer Kendra Foster and session bass giant Pino Palladino all lend a hand, but this is D’Angelo’s brain child for sure.

Upon first spin, the record didn’t quite reveal itself and as a result, I couldn’t appreciate it for what it was. The low key jamming character of the album makes the material sound a tad samey initially. Don’t let that put you off though. There’s a lot of subtlety at play here and therefore, revisiting the album reveals its many secrets. And then suddenly, ‘1000 Deaths’ turns from a confusing mess into a hard Funk masterpiece and the choirs heard throughout the album don’t sound that strange anymore.

Eventually, while the level is consistently high, a few tracks stand out. ‘Betray My Heart’ has this amazing, slinky bassline that carries the song. Any other artist would have fallen victim to the boredom trap in such a song, but D’Angelo builds guitar licks and horns upon this bassline perfectly. The almost psychedelic ‘The Charade’ has an incredible build-up in tension and some fantastic work done on both guitar and electric sitar, while ‘Really Love’ gets a somewhat Baroque feel due to the use of strings (the intro is just beautiful) and classical guitar.

Then again, this is one of those albums that should be heard in its entirity (repeatedly, as stated before) to be truly appreciated for what it is. Does it justify the fourteen year wait? I think it does. While it may be just a little short of what ‘Voodoo’ was, it is once again an artistic triumph for D’Angelo by doing just what he wants. And what he wants takes time, as his past had already proven. The comfort you get from that is this: whatever comes out is brilliant. Because that is exactly what ‘Black Messiah’ is.

Recommended tracks: ‘Betray My Heart’, ‘The Charade’, ‘1000 Deaths’

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