As only a casual observer of D’Angelo’s music he always struck me as a huge talent but he seemed firmly a part of contemporary R&B, an area where I rarely venture as a DJ. I can enjoy much of it but it’s not my world. I’ve since discovered that there has been a 14 year wait for this new album. Most artists would have been written off, but not so this one. Even stories of drugs and psychological problems rearing their less than pretty heads don’t seem to have tainted the enthusiasm for this record in any way. Seemingly, his fans knew it would be worth the wait. Well, is it? A few weeks ago, I heard album opener Ain’t That Easy and I recognised the psychedelic stylings of early Funkadelic as it’s influence. Sly Stone’s “in the cracks” harmonies continued to tick boxes so I investigated the album. I’m glad I did, Black Messiah is a revelation.
From the politically stark sleeve art and provocative title, there can be no doubt about D’Angelo’s intention with this record. 1000 Deaths feels like Public Enemy jamming with The Last Poets and it begins with a huge chunk of a radical black activist Khalid Muhammad’s “Jesus the black revolutionary” speech. Seriously off-kilter bass and heavy funk drums with a sequenced low synth playing catch up with the groove. Snatches of pinging slap bass garnish what is a pot of fearless and dark political stew. It’s uncomfortable but compelling thankfully the whole thing holds up while D’Angelo’s voice glides in and reminds us who we’re listening to. The lyrics are dark and all the time there is breathless danger, war and impending revolution, nagging away. Charade has a sitar riff which never made it onto Around The World In A Day but it’s not a pastiche. It wears it’s purple heart on it’s sleeve and does not disappoint. Sugah Daddy has a jazzy “Theme from Charlie Brown” vibe with it’s gorgeous and playful piano riff. D sings “you say you wanna be the one she chooses to star in her meaningless romance” like the Andrews Sisters. Mocking but surrendered to her undoubted charms. Really Love is a stunning gently swaying love song which begins with sweet restrained strings and a soft latino spoken female vocal before an evocative acoustic guitar seduces you into something very cute and memorable. Back To The Future (Part 1) is sassy hip-hop soul with plaintive strings and electric jazz guitar while Till It’s Done (Tutu) (drum) rolls in with more of that alternative Prince on valium style that’s evident on the majority of the record. Prayer is just that, The Lord’s Prayer through a Purple Rain filter with wobbly synths and electric guitar hooks punctuated on sixteen by a church bell. Betray My Heart gets jazzy and gorgeously melodic once more and it’s rim-shot driven funk and oh so soulful horns and vocal swing keep you locked. The Door is cheerily lead by a happy go lucky postman’s whistle and skips down a country soul road with lush handclaps to the fore and a simple repetitive vocal until the whistle takes us home again. Album closer Another Life has more of that rich jazz soul ballad luxury and D’angelo’s earnest falsetto asking “How does one attempt to be … the kind of friend you would want to keep?” The Roots’ Drummer questlove and veteran session bassist Pino Paladino’s stunningly intuitive rhythm section is at the heart of Black Messiah while other guests include the great stickman James Gadson, Funkadelic’s Kendra Foster on vocals and lyrics and The Time’s Jesse Johnson. It’s clear that D’Angelo is a passionate fan of all of these and more. He may have taken his time before delivering this latest album but I imagine D’Angelo fans will lap this up and he’ll gain new fans just like me.