D’ Angelo’s Black Messiah: Praises Due?
When I heard about Brother D’ Angelo releasing a new album I was highly excited, but being a long time devoted fan to his music I was dreading being let down. Though he has been on a 15 year hiatus since his last album release Voodoo, which held major soulful cuts, since then he has dropped original and cover cuts heavily laced with his neo-soul flavor. Sometimes when you have a hero that is as stellar as D’Angelo we would rather let that hero live and die and their highest glory than to see them come back and not live up to their previous fire. D’Angelo came back to his music fans and family like a Jay-Z or Michael Jordan, each of which have been called messiah’s in their craft by their supporters and critics. Does D’Angelo’s release live up to its heavy weighted title? Just press play.
First things first let’s make clear that with the title D’Angelo is not meant to define himself as a Black Messiah. At a preview party prior to the release of the album D’Angelo passed out lyric booklets of the album that included an explanation of the album which read:
“Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. It can easily be misunderstood. Many will think its 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. Its about the world. Its about an idea that we aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah. Its about the 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. Its not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them. Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many of them are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not man. Its a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
With that being said let’s talk about the music.
The album starts with the soulful and at times haunting sounds of D’Angelo’s croons on “Aint That Easy”. The sound is soul stirring and haunting. The subject matter is less about love and more about an artist’s love affair with art and music. He sings, “You won’t believe all the things you’ll have to sacrifice/ Just to get piece of mind.” D’ Angelo starts the album making open allusions to the struggles that he has faced throughout his absence, but just as his fans have been calling him back, so has the stage, “You can’t leave me/ It aint that easy/ To walk away/ When I want you to stay, baby.” A great opening for the album.
Now with “1000 Deaths” things get a little bit murky. One issue is the clarity of the lyrics. As usual with D’Angelo’s music, an many other soulful artists of his lineage i.e. James Brown and/or Stevie Wonder, his rhythmic crooning can sometimes be hard to decipher leaving one to interpret them as musical hieroglyphics. Which isn’t necessarily a problem. Music is about the sound and feeling more than the text anyways, but “1000 Deaths” was one of the hardest tracks to be understood on the album and in my opinion the least emphasized of melodies of the album so there is a problem here. It opens with a sermon by a preacher elaborating on the Black Messiah idea and falls into what feels like a scatting vamp. D’Angelo, of the neo-soul/hip-hop era, does this well musically blending his singing with rap rhythms over a consistent hip-hop boom-bap, but I had to follow the song with lyrics from an online source to be understood. (Honestly the entire album is more enjoyable when following the lyrics so I will share the link to my source at the end of this article.) The lyrics could be a great deal more empowering if the melody was more fleshed out and apparent even. With all of this lack of clarity “1000 Deaths” is the second longest track on the entire album, short only 9 seconds from the longest finishing track “Another Life”. Still a good groovy song by and iconic of black soul by all means.
“The Charade” is an early favorite of the album. The lyricism is awesome and follows closely to the subject matter of “1000 Deaths” as he sings “Crawling through a systematic maze/ And it pains to demise/ Pain in our eyes/Strain of drownin’, wading into your lies/ Degradation so loud that you can’t hear the sound of our cries (doo, doo)”. With the more emphasized melody it feels that “1000 Deaths” could/should be an interlude into “The Charade”. This song definitely gives a depth of consciousness and blackness that has been missing from R&B lately.
He keeps the energy upbeat with the bluesy “Sugah Daddy”. I will say that by this point the lack of clarity in the lyrics feels a bit like he is cheating. Sorry Bro. The track is funky and groovy, but it feels rushed and not as controlled as his earlier tracks like “Lady” from his debut Brown Sugar album. The lyrics for this one and a few of the other tracks are assisted by Kendra Foster and a long time collaborator of his rapper Q-Tip. This gives hope to myself, as it should to other music aficianado’s alike, for more collaborations between the two. D’Angelo lent vocals to Q-Tip on his The Renaissance LP a few years back, but there were rumors of a collaboration between the two and long time brother of soul Raphael Saadiq on a project titled “Lynnwood Rose” , but I never heard of the official release of the project as an LP, nor EP, but found some unofficial collections of collaborations between the trio. Even with all that said, all soul heads should have heard Raphael and D’Angelo’s killer duet “Be Here” by now. If you haven’t well you’ve got some ‘splaining to do. It gives a taste of the energy that they could all bring together as a soul super group. I’m still looking forward to this and still have my fingers crossed.
“Really Love” is a great track. Sweet and smooth melody with sexy sensual lyrics, but I do believe this was released previously a throughout the years. I think I may use too many S-words in talking about this album, but so what.
“Back to the Future Pt. 1” shows more vocal clarity in the lyrics as he sings about his struggles with displacement in time “ Traveling at the speed of light and then/ At the same time I’m in the same spot too.” He sings, “ I used to get real high/ Now I’m just getting a buzz”, but this album surely give more than just a buzz to us as listeners, Brother D’. Later in the album, “Back to the Future Pt. 2” repeats the bridge out for a more energetic take that rocks just as hard. He uses a guitarring line played back in reverse on the track which is a great example sonic poetic device for this moment of album. Good grooves on both parts of this song.
“Till It’s Done(Tutu)” is a good song questioning and analyzing world issues of life, global warming, and the like. It has more fleshed out production than some of the earlier tracks of the album, but a slight disappointment of this song is its simple volume lowering fade out ending. “Prayer” is a great soul gospel that does the same fade out for an ending amid guitar solo right when the guitarist seems to be heating up. This still seems like it could be a blessing in disguise for D’Angelo though because this all definitely builds anticipation for wanting to see D and the Vanguard in a live show. Who knows what they’d do on stage? Though this is D’s first album release in 15 years there is an hour plus long recording of him performing his classics and Earth, Wind, Fire covers with backing vocals by Anthony Hamilton in Stockholm from 2012 available by OkayPlayer as a stream on SoundCloud (Which I will post at the end of this article) that shows he’s live performance prowess.
“Betray My Heart” is a lovely introspective love song about obeying one’s self. The lyrics are stellar as he evokes, “You, my soul, can depend on me/ You don’t ever have to fear/ That my love is not sincere/ I will never betray my heart”. This track has one of the most prominently emphasized melodies of the album and it is just awesome. A country blues “The Door” comes along speaking on life struggles, “Don’t lock yourself out that door” followed by the second take on “Back to the Future” before “Another Life” takes us home. “Another Life” is a great song beautifully enlivened by the piano keys and is hands down one of the best tracks on the album. “Another Life” gives hope that this album will be D’s second coming and a step into another life for the artist, one that I hope will be a long lasting and consistent one.
Does Black Messiah live up to the hype and the hope? Yes. This album speaks to your spirit and your soul. It inspires you that if Brother D’ can make it through his struggles then you can to. He has been and always will be a black messiah. I am a black messiah. You are a black messiah too. But only if we all believe. Does Black Messiah live up to the hype and the hope? Yes. Would I wait another 15 years for another reincarnation? Hell no.
Black Messiah Lyrics
D’angelo Live in Stockholm