Immediately following a grand jury’s decision not to indict anyone in the death of Michael Brown (the first of two such outcomes involving unarmed black men killed by white cops in a two-week period), elusive R&B icon D’Angelo decided to surprise-emancipate the studio album he’d hoarded for at least a decade. Reportedly recorded on around 200 reams of analog tape, with his team still doing the math on what kind of budget that works out to, Black Messiah is ever-worked, ever-tweaked, and perfected (in its distinctively imperfect way), but soul-bearing and raw like little else. The album would be vital in any time, but in 2014, it’s downright restorative. Call its studio ethic retro-fetishism if you must, but truth is that everything about this album reaches into the past to bring us what the present needs.
The opening track, “Ain’t That Easy,” immediately establishes a more muscular ambition than D’Angelo’s millennium-greeting gumbo of midnight session jamming, Voodoo. That album represented nothing less than the zenith of the neo-soul movement, and in truth a lot more. Black Messiah has hallmarks of the same, with the church of D’Angelo vocal overdubs still a staple. A surprising amount of the album’s material throws back to his more jazz-indebted 1995 debut, Brown Sugar, but it’s also something else, something those two albums hinted might someday manifest, but playfully hid. In short, that thing is guitar. When D’Angelo released Voodoo, he reportedly didn’t even know how to play the instrument well; keyboards have always been his preference. But he adopted the axe in a continued tribute to Prince and Funkadelic, whose gonzo psychedelic opuses like Maggotbrain and Free Your Mind…and Your Ass Will Follow provide the clear blueprint for this set’s retro-meets-future funk.
D’Angelo plays the guitar like you might imagine he would: His studious practice over the last decade has allowed his expressive leads to bleed sometimes unrecognizably into the more expert ones by the Time’s Jesse Johnson and others, but there’s a lovely tentativeness, the kind that makes his falsetto so tender and appealing when he wants it to be. Even then, the album rocks, and in every moment it illuminates what’s been missing in R&B for far too long. From Frank Ocean to Miguel, Justin Timberlake to Bruno Mars, the male artists that followed in D’Angelo’s wake have intimated sex and carnality through asserting their own agency or disavowing agency altogether. D’Angelo’s rock, like his R&B (if the two can be so separated), isn’t about control, but a shared sense of vulnerability, and that ineffable quality infiltrates every attempt at emulating Prince and Eddie Hazel and makes D’Angelo’s guitar, even when he’s not the one playing it, a unique revelation.
The full strength of Black Messiah is felt on “1000 Deaths,” a distortion-heavy slab of locomotive rock that finds Questlove banging out the “Pharaoh’s Dance” beat over crude guitar shapes so insistent they will themselves into hooks. Johnson screeches through a shrieking banshee of a guitar solo even more wrenching, due to the sheets of borderline-noise now piled atop it, than on the circulated demo version of the track. The raised hands of the album’s cover art clenched into tightly balled fists, “Ain’t That Easy” and “1000 Deaths” form a diptych that comprises the pinnacle of Black Messiah as a guitar album.
These two songs also establish a tidy thematic conceit for the album: a cry to be remembered, to be again present and accounted for, a sentiment that extends not only to D’Angelo, reasserting himself and his career after a long leave of absence, but to those men and women who are, right now, marching through streets around the country with “Black Lives Matter” signs. “Ain’t That Easy” manifests desperation (“You can’t leave me!”), cockiness (“I got just what you need”), and honesty (“You won’t believe all the things you have to sacrifice/Just to get a piece of mind”), while “1000 Deaths” addresses the fear of disappearing entirely (“They’re gonna send me over the hill”). The former doubles as a fever dream of addiction (D’Angelo barks demonic-filtered, druggy come-ons like “Take a toke of smoke from me as you drift inside,” preying on a falsetto that meets “with a choice that you can’t decide”) or even the last vestiges of a fading romance. “1000 Deaths” opens with a sermon on “the black revolutionary messiah” sampled from The Murder of Fred Hampton and the horrors of war (“A coward dies 1000 times/A soldier only dies just once”), validating Questlove’s eager comparison to Apocalypse Now at a recent listening session for the album in New York. All this speaks to the malleability of one of this era’s great statements of artistic intent in any medium.