For over a decade we lived with the fear that D’Angelo, the seemingly supernatural soul and funk behemoth, may have been the brightest of stars that burned out far too quickly. His two albums before now – the jazz-tinted ‘Brown Sugar’ and convention-abandoning ‘Voodoo’ – were touched with a rare genius as D channelled Prince, Marvin Gaye and James Brown into a package so sultry on the ear that spinning his records felt like both a carnal and otherworldly experience.
Having removed himself from the spotlight in 2000, rumours of addiction and crippling self-doubt began surrounding the singer. Even a return to performing in 2012 hadn’t heralded the release of any newly recorded material. And now, arriving with little warning, we have ‘Black Messiah’, a record that pushes its now 40-year-old maker into smoky new territory while simultaneously sounding like everything a D’Angelo album should be.
Despite the elongated nature of its creation, ‘Black Messiah’ is a fluid, confidently cool piece. Mostly built on live instrumentation, the LP (co-credited to his backing group, The Vanguard) sees D’Angelo as a bandleader more than ever before. At times it could almost pass for a series of perfect late-night jamming sessions cut over a long weekend. ‘Sugah Daddy’, for example, is a crazy-funky JB pastiche led by a wandering piano line and the singer’s unrestrained falsetto, while rhythmic guitar lines and organic drums take front-and-centre on the infectious ‘Till It’s Done (Tutu)’ and ‘Prayer’.
Elsewhere, the scuzzy ‘1000 Deaths’ – with its blitzing drums, skewered guitars and distorted vocal lines – moves to a dissonant beat, wrapping D’s soulful sound in more barbwire than ever before (the album’s release was reportedly brought forward because of on-going US race relation and police brutality protests), while the reflective 'Back To The Future (Part I)' finds him addressing his discomfort with being a sex symbol, something partially credited as derailing his career.
But this is primarily a joyful album, with its author rediscovering an appreciation for more traditional song structure on the Sly Stone-recalling opener ‘Ain’t That Easy’ and pretty ballad ‘Really Love’. These carefree moments punctuate D’Angelo’s seemingly effortless virtuosity, helping to make ‘Black Messiah’, after all these years, a real showcase of his incredible talent.
Words: Dean Van Nguyen
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