D’Angelo and The Vanguard – “Black Messiah” (Album Review)

black messiah

A week ago when I had caught wind that D’Angelo was about to release his third studio album, I couldn’t believe it. Not in the, “oh my goodness he’s putting out an album!”, kind of way, but more in a, “this is bullshit” kind of manner. For years those who have kept their ear to the underground have heard whispsers and rumours that this event was on its way, only to be lead to the disappointing conclusion that there was no truth in the stories we had heard.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, this generation’s “Hardest Working Man in Show Biz,” was constantly saying the album was on its way, and lauding its musical merits. For years he seemed to be the missing link between the glory days of “Voodoo,” and whatever music was yet to come, serving as a John the Baptist for the coming of the Black Messiah. Yet recently, Michael Archer, the Richmond, Virginia native who we all know as D’Angelo, had been poking his head out of his foxhole too many times for this latest batch of rumors to not be taken a tad bit more seriously. He appearanced at the Red Bull Music Academy, performed throughout Europe, and even got on stage at the BET Awards, of all places. He also made cameos on various Youtube videos, speaking on the mysticism of Prince and the state of neo-soul.

The timing of Black Messiah couldn’t have been more perfect. With the music industry undergoing an amorphous state of change, the United States in the midst of social upheaval, and the genre of soul and funk music literally on life support, the album’s title is incredibly fitting. Picking up right where Voodoo left us years ago, Black Messiah proves that D’Angelo has not lost his touch.

The sound remains organic and raw, driven by a percussion section that is not only tight, but slightly drunken at the same time. Musically, we hear elements of Dilla, Funkadelic, Quincy Jones, and Prince. Dilla’s drum progressions and patterns, Funkadelic’s hard rock and funk fusion, Quincy’s ear for subtle horns and bossa nova cadences, and Prince’s fearless experimentation and burst of musical creativity. Archer still makes it all his own, something that he’s done for nearly 20 years to the point where it’s barely even surprising. What truly differentiates Black Messiah from his last two offerings is the message within the music. In the beginning of his career, D’Angelo was an artist whose music centered around the succulent tenderness of love and the sharp pain of heartbreak. His music was sensuous and gritty all at once. However, with Black Messiah he has reached another level of songwriting. He seeks to define the world that surrounds us all, including its social constructs.

If I were to compare this album to any other body of work, it would have to be Marvin Gaye’s, What’s Going On. To many this comparison might border on blasphemy, but walk with me for a bit. I can’t help but see the parallels between the two works of art and the men who created them. If any artist is worthy of a Marvin Gaye comparision it D’Angelo. Both men had an internal struggle with their spiritual and carnal desires, and that inner conflict revealed itself their music. In the recording process of What’s Going On, we saw Marvin find himself depressed in spite of enjoying great success and acclaim with in his musical career, much like D’Angelo after the release of Voodoo. This depression almost caused Gaye to commit suicide. Similarly, we saw D’Angelo spiral out of control, being arrested multiple times and hitting rock bottom.

Yet despite their own personal trials, both artists found inspiration in the social discord that surrounded them. For Marvin it was Vietnam and the tumult of the anti-war movement. Today, with the release of Black Messiah, one doesn’t have to look hard to see that things are clearly messed up. The nation has been marred by unemployment, police brutality, and seemingly never ending military action in countries worldwide. Much like What’s Going On spoke to the times of the seventies, Black Messiah speaks to us today. Songs like, “The Charade,” :Till It’s Done,” and “Prayer” all seek to give hope in times of strife. “The Charade” ought to be the marcher’s anthem from it’s chorus alone, — “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.” “Till It’s Done” addresses climate chane, needless death, and asks what we’re really fighting for. In light of the outrage that was sparked by the deaths of black men across the country, Black Messiah asks the questions that many of us have been harboring within our hearts. Black Messiah proves that music can still be about something.

So. After 14 years of waiting, I’d have to say it was all worth it. Perhaps we wouldn’t have appreciated Black Messiah if it had been released at an earlier time. Three cheers for D’Angelo, who isn’t the artist we deserved, but the artist we are desperately in need of. Now, excuse me as I mark my calendar for 2030 and wait for the next D’Angelo album to drop.


Purchase “Black Messiah” via iTunes.