The rumors are true. “They’re gonna send me over the hill,” D’Angelo sings on the funkfest “1000 Deaths,” the second track on his first album since the 2000 classic, Voodoo. And though D speaks from the perspective of a soldier of war, the line works perfectly to sum up the self-doubt that maybe caused him to disappear from studio recording for almost 15 years—the fear of being over the hill in the new millennium. But he’s back, and vengeance is his saith the Lord. Following an Afropunk-sponsored Manhattan listening party Sunday night, Black Messiah hit iTunes at the stroke of midnight, giving all new meaning to #breaktheinternet.
Possessed by the spirit of James Brown, this long-awaited record courses all over the place with pent-up percussive energy. Drums come courtesy of Questlove—who co-writes three tracks—as well as James Gadson and Chris Dave. And though Black Messiah is credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard, the band lineup is never expressly revealed. (In addition to three drummers, the record boasts five guitarists, including Jesse Johnson of the legendary Prince-affiliated outfit The Time, and D’Angelo himself.) Sexy snare drums on “Ain’t That Easy,” “The Charade” and “Prayer” nod to the LinnDrum of mid-’80s Prince records. Funk is its own reward throughout each of the 12 tracks on this killer comeback album.
Voodoo played like an OK Computer of soul, but if that reference means little for you, it’s as if D’Angelo’s Grammy-winning record musically rewrote rules when it came to ambiance, dusty Dilla-like percussion and seductive horn arrangements. Back in ’85, Prince (to invoke D’s hero once more) confounded his newfound mass commercial audience when he failed to follow Purple Rain with something in the same vein. Black Messiah is completely in the same vein as Voodoo, and praise god. Wu-Tang Clan sonically went left on their first album in seven years weeks ago, and the resulting record bombed. D’Angelo won’t have that problem.
So, finally, what’s it sound like? Black Messiah begins something like the UFO landing on the intro to Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love, then shifts into the funk shuffle of “Ain’t That Easy.” “Ever hit with a choice that you can’t decide?… Shut your mouth off and focus on what you feel inside,” he chants in that familiar D’Angelo sing-speak we’ve missed for a decade and a half. Q-Tip co-writes lyrics here (on “Sugah Daddy” too), as does singer-songwriter Kendra Foster, who contributes to eight Black Messiah tracks. She’s his Black Messiah foil, like Angie Stone in the days of his Brown Sugar debut. But the self-questioning sounds like 100 percent D’Angelo.
Still, uncertainty hardly pervades the album. A rallying cry sampled from the late Khalid Abdul Muhammad about a Black revolutionary Jesus (“not some cracker Christ”) kicks off the very next track, “1000 Deaths.” Crashing cymbals break up blistering guitar work, this time in service of a song about a soldier’s confidence. “I won’t nut up when we up thick in the crunch/Because a coward dies a thousand deaths/But a soldier only dies just once.”
“The Charade” comes next, with a pretty guitar hook and a quotable chorus plastered on brick walls in nationwide ’hoods right about now (“All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk”) that speaks directly to Ferguson and this #blacklivesmatter moment. Both “The Charade” and the playful romp “Sugah Daddy” will be familiar to the lucky thousands who’ve seen D’Angelo live in recent years. The latter’s snaky horns and funky piano hook all lead up to an ending where D brags about making love to his girl till she queefs: “She said it’s talkin’ to ya daddy!”
Originally rumored to be the lead Black Messiah single, “Sugah Daddy”’s groove was a little too advanced for the world’s Hot 97s. “Really Love” is the real single, more mid-tempo, sunshiny and Brown Sugar with a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” somewhere in there. Underneath Spanish sweet nothings, the string arrangement on the epic intro reminds of Clare Fischer, and indeed, it comes courtesy of the late composer’s son, Brent Fischer. On “Back in the Future (Part I)”—the first of four tracks written by D’Angelo solo—he reminisces on love gone stale with a metaphor perfect for the author of “Brown Sugar”: “I just wanna go back, baby/Back to the way it was/I used to get real high/But now I’m just gettin’ a buzz.”
Far be it from me to start rhapsodizing about Black Messiah like a modern-day classic less than 24 hours after its release. But classic elements come up on tracks like “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” where—like his other hero, Marvin Gaye—D’Angelo sings of “Acid rain dripping on our trees and in our hair” like Gaye mourning the environment on “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” And if you think about it, D croons about war (“1000 Deaths”), social justice (“The Charade”), the ecosystem (“Till It’s Done [Tutu]”), spirituality (“Prayer”), and love (everywhere else) like nothing short of What’s Going On.
Clearly a passion project for everyone involved, Black Messiah tosses commerciality to the wind and still wins on nearly every level. It might help if we could make out D’Angelo’s lyrics more; there won’t ever be much singing along here, no matter how many times you play it. But what were the odds that D’Angelo would return 15 years later with an album actually worth hearing? Lauryn Hill, you’re up.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter and Instagram at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.