Earlier this week, my friends in the band Polyenso wrote, "the world is not ready for what D'Angelo just dropped on us." I love those guys, but I couldn't disagree more. The world is ready for Black Messiah.
You know the script by now: the 14-year break, the substance abuse, the weight gain, the fallout from 2000's Voodoo, which has stood its ground as an elevating and innovative musical statement. I was fairly late to that record, hearing it certainly after The Roots' Things Fall Apart and Common's Like Water For Chocolate, which were products of the same Electric Lady sessions, and probably before my wife really hipped me to Mama's Gun. The richness that oozed from the tracks -analog, sexy, high, scary, haunting- was captivating. The quarter note seemed to have a mind of its own, informed by the revolving door of talent found all over those compositions. I was pretty smitten with "neo-soul" and my mom even had that Macy Gray album.
I could write all night about Voodoo, but a decade and a half removed from its conception, it feels like the child is growing up. As the funkadelic intro to "Ain't That Easy" wobbles out of its fourth bar, a snare that wouldn't be out of place on a Def Leppard album signals a new frontier. D sounds like a mature parent here, no empty nest syndrome. Like a father that "used to get real high," he is now content to take his time with lucidity. He sounds like he played guitar a lot since Y2K, trying not to be Eddie Hazel but just trying to be himself on a new instrument. He sounds confident and relaxed, the drawl of his signature harmonies stacked sardine-close; his timbre bordering feminine on "Till it's Done (Tutu)," a necessary change from the hyper-sexualized martyr he became post-"Untitled" video.
These songs are not catchy; they don't belong on a radio format rife with ham-fisted compression, pitch correction and digital mutilation. They feel simultaneously familiar yet new; not timeless but steeped in tradition, reverent of ancestry yet directed at you in the here and now. I thought "Really Love" reworked a jazz standard until its own identity crept up on me. Slide guitar and whistling make "The Door" feel like it's been a piece of Americana for a century. Black Messiah is like discovering something fresh in your own backyard.
I often pine for eras past, to see Mahavishnu or Mingus in their prime, to exist on vinyl and be the first on my block to cook Thai at home. But this is 2014 and I still don't have a hoverboard, everything is "twee" or whatever but I have this album so it's all okay for a bit. It's not du jour "PBR&B" (a genre whose nomenclature I still cannot come to terms with and am e-kicking myself for even using just now). It means something, the true embodiment of soul.
We've been talking #BlackMessiah for days now, and in a world that feels increasingly more fucked up than it's ever been, I imagine every person on the subway listening to this album. Even as a deluded dream it makes me feel connected to the human race, as bad as it's doing right now. "It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all the leader," writes D'Angelo of the album's title. I admit I got Kanye cooties after learning the name, but it is unequivocally appropriate just like Voodoo and Brown Sugar before it, and unlike Jay-Z's self deification, Michael Archer feels like one of us.
While the shades of Sly, Meshell and On the Corner Miles are most apparent, I can't help but think this owes a lot to fellow neo-alum Bilal. Airtight's Revenge flew below most radars in 2010, but its author's evolution was a welcome departure from the expected Prince-isms he had done so flawlessly. Human touch is all over Black Messiah, and while all I want to do is pore over liner notes and have Russ Elevado painstakingly recreate the process in full engineer's cut commentary, it's unmistakably Pino and Sharkey and Quest and Roy Hargrove, et al. The Soulquarians already showed us the beauty of the collective, and I'm content to exist in that space until the vinyl comes out in February.
Until then, I'll be bouncing on the R platform, getting granular in headphones and hearing some universal truth in every handclap and "goodgod!" that these dozen songs have to show me.