D'Angelo – Black Messiah first-listen review: 'Investing vintage soul with a fresh lustre'

D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, his first album since 2000’s Voodoo, looks back to the funk greats while retaining a modern political edge

Ain’t That Easy

A squiggle of guitars unveils the third coming of D’Angelo, one that has been described as “the black SMiLE”, so long has it been in the making, so surrounded by myth and hearsay and false-starts. Attributed to D’Angelo and the Vanguard, it’s his first album since 2000’s Voodoo, the one whose attendant Untitled video did so much to inflame the artist’s confusion and torment about his appeal. Was he little more than a ripped torso? Or was he, as his acolytes insisted, the greatest soul man since Marvin? Or some kind of holy union of funky Sly and futuredelic Stevie?

Ain’t That Easy, with its plucked guitar, Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin pace and stoned atmosphere, suggests the latter. But this recalls the Sly of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, as languid and doped-out as that landmark. Even the handclaps and the layered harmony vocals seem sardonic. “My darling …” he sings, his voice tweaked and submerged in the mix, offering a sense that R&B tropes will be subverted here. His voice may not be screaming to be heard, but the music is. “Shut your mouth … focus what you feel inside …” The lyrics talk of “sacrifice” and “peace of mind”, words and phrases dropped like depth charges. There is a track later on called Back to the Future and that’s what this is: for all the production trickery – courtesy of D’Angelo and Questlove – this is funk, not the avant-R&B of Timbaland and Pharrell. It’s a Sly-George Clinton-Prince thing.

1,000 Deaths

It starts with the voice of a preacher declaiming fiercely about a “cracker Christ” and a “revolutionary messiah”. In a lyric booklet passed out at the unveiling of this album, D’Angelo explained the title of the record: “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.” Nevertheless, many will assume it is indeed D’Angelo – who critic Robert Christgau rechristened “R&B Jesus” – asserting himself a la Kanye/Yeezus.

1,000 Deaths has a relentless, insistent anti-groove; a sort of industrial chug. Perhaps this is what Questlove meant when he referred in the build-up to the release of the album as “new [synth] patches”. It’s militant funk with a guitar freak-out for a coda, with shades of Eddie Hazel circa Maggot Brain, one minute of pure screaming acid-addled extrapolation.

The Charade

The Charade opens with curlicues of guitar. D’Angelo’s voice is again tweaked to an almost cartoonish degree, perhaps for disorienting effect. The handclaps add to the sardonic party atmosphere. It’s hard to make out what he’s singing – what charade? Obama’s presidency? Is he saying it’s a charade of black omnipotence? Certainly Black Messiah drops at a significant moment: “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked, revealing at the end of the day, the charade,” D’Angelo sings, weeks after Americans rioted following the controversial deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Sugah Daddy

This has a playful feel and, again, a tampered-with tempo. The production so far and arrangements create a sound that is stoned, loping and molasses-thick, while lyrical torpedoes are delivered via torpid funk. It is – to quote Chris Rock talking about his new movie Top Five – “really black, the way George Clinton’s really black, like the Ohio Players – Fire, Sweet Sticky Thing – is just some black shit. That shit is black. Like a white man has nothing to do with this shit.” Rock is one of several celebrities who have been waiting for this release for a long time, ever since D’Angelo – and his fellow “nu soul” artistes Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and India.Arie – largely failed to deliver on their early promise. “I literally feel [D’Angelo] is the last pure African-American artist left,” said Questlove recently, while promulgating his theory of black genius – what he calls “a crazy psychological kind of stoppage that prevents them from following through. A sort of self-saboteur disorder.” Or, as Chris Rock says: “D’Angelo. Chris Tucker. Dave Chappelle. Lauryn Hill. They all hang out on the same island. The island of What Do We Do with All This Talent? It frustrates me.”

Really Love

This is the first apparent love song on the album from the tormented soul man and preacher’s son who used to dream of that other trouble man, Marvin. As with much of Gaye’s work, Really Love is torn between sex and the sacred. It starts with strings, a female Spanish voice and Spanish guitar, both to caressing effect. The tempo picks up, and there are more handclaps. This one is more crisply produced, not so dense, a cleaner affair: upmarket boudoir funk. “When you call my name,” sighs D’Angelo. This is what R&B was like before the Weeknd. Marvin and Prince may have been here before, but D’Angelo invests it with fresh lustre, if only because it’s been a while since anyone produced soul music like this.

Back to the Future (Part 1)

This is another crisply executed slice of smooth falsetto funk, reminiscent of Sly’s If You Want Me to Stay. “I just wanna go back, baby – back to the way it was,” sings D’Angelo, his voice not treated here. He could be talking about funk music, or about the days when he began music-making, before he became objectified like so many female performers before him. He seems to allude to this here: “Wonderin’ about the shape I’m in – hope it ain’t my abdomen.”

Till It’s Done (Tutu)

A drum roll, echoing the one at the start of Sly’s Stand, leads into a slower, woozier, wonkier piece of dreamsoul. His voice sounds comically tweaked again as he gets philosophical on our ass: “What have we become?” he wonders. “Where do we belong, where do we come from?” Meanwhile, “acid rain drips on my feet”. This might be where Questlove got the idea of Black Messiah as a Black Apocalypse Now from. There is a reference to soldiers, sons and daughters, missing, presumed dead: “Do we even know what we’re fighting for?” he asks. There are some lovely “la la la”s although one suspects they are being used to sugar a rather bitter pill.


A guitar scree, heavy handclaps, some gospel moans, and heaps of guitar smothered in gunk. “Hollywood be thy name,” D’Angelo salutes the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come.” Menacing bells toll through the miasmic haze. This isn’t so much punk funk as drunk funk.

Betray My Heart

This one is softer. There is the sound of a guitar being gently strummed, one chord. Cue some jazzy bass, chords and percussion as D’Angelo scat-sings. It’s this kind of diverse approach, this wild eclecticism, that have helped D’Angelo become such a totemic figure for young urban/R&B artists, for the likes of Beyonce and Frank Ocean, drawn to the way he blends the conventional and the experimental.

The Door

Have you ever heard D’Angelo whistle? You will here. Over acoustic guitar and a country-style melody/gait, he chides someone. A former lover, perhaps – unless he is addressing himself, the D’Angelo who, messed up on cocaine and alcohol, almost died in a car crash.

Back to the Future (Part II)

A reprise of BTTF helps give the sense of Black Messiah as a coherent work, if not an out-and-out concept. Certainly it’s hard to shake the idea of this as a statement, and even though some of the tracks have been part of his live sets for a while, and the album was due to be released any number of times over the last few years, the fact that it is delivered now, with the tumultuous events Stateside of the last couple of months, seems deliberate, a pointed gesture.

Another Life

Then again, Black Messiah works supremely well as a wind-down, late-night, quiet-storm collection. See also: Marvin’s What’s Going On. This is an exquisite ballad, featuring the cream of the session scene such as the veteran Pino Palladino. It, like the album as a whole, is as much a restatement of faith in the principles and sounds of the pre-digital era of black music as anything more forcefully political. If you’re going to buy an album of polished, sophisticated funk-soul from a living, breathing R&B enigma this Christmas, make it Black Messiah.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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