First Thoughts: D'Angelo and The Vanguard - Black Messiah
Posted on Tuesday, 16 December 2014 | No Comments
Santa saved the best until last.
"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." Chris Rock
Really, you'd think they'd learn, wouldn't you? Print media has always suffered from its lengthy lead times, but the ritual of trying to some up the year with a month or two to go is always going to result in casualties. London Calling, The Chronic - just two major releases that have slipped through the cracks thanks to the vagaries of release schedules in the past. Even in the internet age, the lists start popping up in November (and the biggest of raspberries here to Rough Trade, who laughably published a list mid-November, essentially telling their customers not to even bother coming in for the next six to seven weeks) and become irrelevant almost as soon as they hit the servers. Regular readers may not be surprised to note that this blog takes something of a firm line against both the thunderously stupid bore-rock of The Black Keys and the Randian Beyonce machine, but both are hugely popular artists who have had major December releases in recent years that managed to break the lists on their way to breaking the charts. It's worth acknowledging the inherent absurdity of these lists - how important is it really than a record is the twelfth best of its year, as opposed to the fifteenth? - but if you are going to do something, at least do it properly.
All of this is preamble to perhaps the biggest wrench in the machine that list season has ever experienced. Re-capping the long, lengthy wait for a mythical third D'Angelo album is unnecessary here (and has been covered enough elsewhere), but suffice to say the sudden announcement and release of the album over the course of the weekend was surprising and astounding in equal measure. Even after some successful comeback tours in recent years, enough mooted release dates had come and gone to give him the stature not of R&B Jesus but R&B Kevin Shields to make any notion that the album would emerge in 2014 seem laughably optimistic. Indeed, with a European tour booked in for next spring, a 2015 release seemed pretty certain. The reasons for the sudden release of D'Angelo's latest can only be speculated, but it looks like a fairly last-minute decision, with retailers only receiving stock around the time of the album announcement and a vinyl edition not due for release until February. Perhaps, aware of the enormous expectation and hope placed on a follow-up to Voodoo, D'Angelo and his label just wanted it out there so people could make up their own minds.
It's also impossible to avoid that, on what is an implicitly (and often explicitly) political work, D'Angelo needed to make his voice count after a year of mounting atrocity. Eric Garner, Michael Brown - these names were etched into the global conscious this year, the victims of an increasingly militarised police force that remains, on a fundamental level, racist. As a white, middle-class man in the north of England, I have very little authority on which to discuss these. Suffice to say though that to not be horrified is to pronounce yourself deficient in basic humanity, and that there has been no speech more chilling, more sadly necessary than Michael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike, speaking out after the blatant injustice of the Ferguson ruling before a performance with Run The Jewels. Black Messiah, as D'Angelo has been at pains to point out, is not a statement of arrogance or self-importance: the black messiah is any black person who stands up for themselves and their black community. The backing band D'Angelo credits the album to may be something of a construction (credits suggest at an album built around D'Angelo's own tracks and guitar work, added to by luminaries like Questlove, Pino Palladino and Kendra Foster), but the message is significant -D'Angelo returns, not as a long-lost voice lost from the herd but as one of many, his voice held aloft by his peers. Above and beyond anything else, the main message that comes away from early listens is of the importance of solidarity, be it in politics, in sex, in emotional loyalty.
The two most strident works arrive early on in proceedings. Ain't That Easy is a beautiful, bold curtain raise, one that takes the quiet-storm conclusion of Voodoo's Africa and heats things up into a gilded funk, but it's 1,000 Deaths that provides the first great shock. Over an industrial buzz that comes across as There's a Riot Goin' On by way of Yeezus (the former's mixture of drugged-out contempt and political fury is self-evidently the tributary for Black Messiah's more fiery moments), D'Angelo's distorted voice takes up where an incendiary preacher sample leaves off, extolling the need for courage, nervous fear jostling with righteous determination. The Charade, following straight after, sits somewhere between lilting delight and the tense funk of the previous tracks, layers of guitar driving past as D'Angelo confronts the lie of a post-racial America, dropping the line that Black Messiah seems likely to be remembered for (and the line that demanded its early release) - "All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk." Even those these tracks have been years in the making - a demo of 1,000 Deaths was doing the rounds in 2010 - they remain urgent and hungry. The balance D'Angelo and his co-producers have struck between complex, intricate arrangements and ultra-glossy production whilst retaining a vivid, undeniable energy might be even more miraculous on its own terms than the spacious, molten grooves of Voodoo.
This new political dimension to his work continues later on in the album, especially on the astonishing mid-album duo of 'Til It's Done (Tutu) and Prayer, whose woozy, shape-shifting arrangement delivers most obviously on Questlove's suggestion that Black Messiah could be the African-American SMiLE. Instead of direct calls to action though, this duo strikes a more pensive note, calling out for some kind of salvation, something to lift humanity up from the harm it causes itself. In this context, the more obvious personal lyrics gain a more widescreen perspective as well. Broken hearted Delta blues homily The Door works as an appeal to an absent lover, sure, but it's a call as well to D'Angelo's own wayward muse during his long period of silence, to the relationship between performer and audience, to D'Angelo finally returning and offering something to the community and the crowds that have been long awaiting his return (see Chris Rock above).
It's a context that sneaks into even Black Messiah's most easy-going, party-friendly moments. Notional lead track Sugah Daddy, released on Sunday a day ahead of the album, makes sense on the album as the most clear link back to Voodoo, driving a playful jazz piano line through all kinds of modulated horn bursts into a liberated, aroused funk (second most memorable line of the album, for very different reasons: "I hit it so I made the pussy fart" - hang on, didn't that just get made illegal over here?). It's a brilliant bit of groove in its own right, but after the heavy-going start and before the more pensive tracks following it, it's a moment of dancefloor emancipation that bursts open D'Angelo's message on the album. Black Messiah is a call for union: on the streets, in the clubs, between the sheets. (Aside from Leonard Cohen and Prince, no other working artist still displays such a keen awareness of the sanctity of sex, of the sacrament it can be.) The gorgeous Really Love, with its fluid flamenco guitar runs and ultra-smooth strut, is the more family-friendly flip-side, is a note of thanks and gratitude, a rare happy-in-love song that avoids smugness and instead bursts at the seams with a technicolour, vibrant joy at the blessing the singer has received.
After fourteen long, personally difficult years, D'Angelo has returned from a self-inflicted exile more open-minded, open-hearted and determined to change the world than ever before. He wants to raise us up, in our inner selves and in our outer status - for all the despair and anger than sometimes seeps through, Black Messiah is not an album that wallows in the kind of squalid, opiated depression at There's a Riot Goin' On. By the time Back To The Future (Part I) rolls around, he's even happy to make his past notoriety a punchline, jesting "Wondering about the shape I’m in / Hope it ain’t my abdomen." The accumulation of sounds, styles, moods and thoughts throughout means that this is inevitably an album whose real wisdom and triumphs will slowly reveal themselves over the months and years to come. But make no mistake, a triumph this most surely is. As the last notes of Another Life reverberate, its luscious mix of piano, guitar and sitar sounding strikingly ornate without ever becoming overwhelming (again, Black Messiah's productions have far more going on than Voodoo, but still retain that essential space), it feels like you've spent the last hour breathing in lungfuls of fresh, rejuvenating air. As lengthy and difficult the making of this album was, the final product feels supremely, audaciously alive.