D’Angelo & The Vanguard, Black Messiah

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 12.17.14 in Reviews

D’Angelo‘s return from a long, teasing hiatus was almost a no-win situation: How to follow up an album like 2000′s Voodoo, which was roundly hailed as a masterpiece? To put out Voodoo 2.0 would’ve been disappointing, but to chase the EDM bandwagon or hire the latest Swedish super-producer would’ve been pathetic. Instead, D’Angelo surrounded himself with a small circle of friends — Q-Tip, ?uestlove and the formidable rhythm section of Pino Palladino (bass) and James Gadsen (drums) — and found new ways to recombine soul, funk, jazz, rock and R&B. D’Angelo was, and remains, a pop star, but Black Messiah is hardly a pop album.

A daring and long-delayed return

Messiah announces its intentions almost immediately: “Ain’t That Easy”‘s psychedelic, sci-fi-sound-effect opening gives way to gutbucket rock guitars. Even when the song settles into an R&B groove, the guitar keeps chugging away in the background, and the whole thing is punctuated by sudden, arrhythmic handclaps. The album’s lead single, “Sugah Daddy,” is a playful bit of slow funk and soul jazz built around nimble piano, with a slippery vocal melody and pointed interjections from the horns.

“1000 Deaths,” from which the album takes its title, begins with a sample of a preacher quoting Scripture to refute the notion that Christ was white. The combination of “found sound” vocals with a funk/R&B rhythm vaguely recalls David Byrne/Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, right down to the prominent slap bass and the slashes of guitar, but D’Angelo pushes the concept even further, creating a song with no discernible verse/chorus structure.

In both this song and the ?uestlove-produced “The Charade,” D’Angelo employs melodies so tightly constricted they feel closer to speech, and his knack for doubling his voice at the octave gives even the most natural melody an unexpected richness. The album is full of surprises — a brief bit of classical guitar playing (perhaps inspired by the famous “Asturias” by Isaac Albeniz) in “Really Love,” for example, and a muted or prepared banjo at the start of “Back to the Future, Part 1.” And “Prayer” may be the album’s beating heart: with its stuttering, almost disguised 4/4 rhythm (and again, the handclaps on unexpected beats); its wandering keyboard patch (one of many on the album); and its tolling bell, “Prayer” creates a wonderful sonic bed for some of D’Angelo’s most fervent singing. D’Angelo challenges you to listen closely, and Black Messiah provides ample rewards for repeated listening.