Reviewed by Roy Trakin.
For the second consecutive December, a major urban star has dropped an album somewhat unexpectedly and messed up everyone’s year-end Top 10s. Last time, it was Beyonce with a game-changer, now it’s D’Angelo delivering his first album since 2000’s Voodoo, a stoner headphones classic that refracts traditional R&B in a funhouse mirror like Picasso’s cubism, a post-hip-hop blend of the erotic politics of There’s a Riot Going On and What’s Going On, the format minimalist audacity of Kid A and 808s & Heartbreak, the druggy, soulful ecstasy and agony of A Wizard, A True Star and Suicide.
Listen long enough while reading along with the buried, socio-sexual lyrics and you’re sucked into a vortex of an idiosyncratic history/reworking of the blues, from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince and Kanye.
“I wanna give you something to feed your mind,” he drawls in the chug-a-lugging opener, “Ain’t That Easy,” in which the spirits of Sly, Stevie Wonder and Al Green mingle with Tom Waits, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, the dual-meaning title both indicating it is — and ain’t — that hard.
The charged current-day politics of Ferguson weigh in on the anti-war “1000 Deaths,” which opens with a Black Panther’s railing about the Jesus of the Bible ‘with hair like lamb’s wool,” culminating in Hendrixian power chords supplemented by the steady beat of bassist Pino Palladino – yes, the very same guy who replaced John Entwistle in The Who – and The Roots drummer/ collaborator Questlove, fusing together what could easily have been disparate pieces thrown to the winds.
Lines like “All we wanted was a chance to talk/Stead we only got outlined in chalk,” makes the Prince-like “The Charade” D’Angelo’s nod to a social anthem like “A Change Is Gonna Come,” while the clippety-clop rhythms of the leering “Sugah Daddy” features a female chorus straight out of the Andrews Sisters and a double-entendre allusion to his deliberate creative method, “Sometimes you gotta just/Ease it out,” followed by a nod to his own salacious rep: “I hit it so I made the pussy fart.” Ever the romantic, he admits, “I’m not an easy man to understand” in the dreamy flamenco strains of “Really Love,” which ends the “first side” of the album with the sound of the needle coming off vinyl.
Yes, in this day and age of a la carte streaming, Black Messiah is created as a piece from front to back, with “Back to the Future (Part 1)” providing the exotic “Within You, Without You” second side-opener with its plucked guitar evoking a Far Eastern feel, as D’Angelo makes fun of his six-pack stomach on the cover of Voodoo: “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in,” he playfully teases, “I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to.”
“Til It’s Done (TUTU)” features his childlike, but knowing, falsetto expressing existential doubt. “Question ain’t do we have resources to rebuild/Do we have the will,” he wonders, echoing Marvin Gaye’s own long-ago plaint. The ramshackle “Prayer” finds our protagonist turning to a higher power as clipped voices fade in and out of the mix, a bell clanging in the background as if each of our destinies is being decided.
The swinging “Betray My Heart,” with its punctuating horns and scratchy funk guitar, states the artist’s raison d’etre in no uncertain terms: “I will never betray my heart.” The catchy whistle of “The Door” is only a prelude to the epic finale, “Another Life,” a nearly six-minute tribute to Philadelphia soul, with its twangy sitar, a tribute to the Gamble-Huff-Thom Bell sound of groups like the Stylistics, literally bringing it all back home.
“Used to get real high/Now I’m just getting a buzz,” admits D’Angelo, and that may well be our fate in this current, watered-down, diluted world of formula pop culture, but he’s doing his best to keep raising the stakes. Feed your mind and the body will eventually follow.