D’Angelo and the Vanguard: Black Messiah

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Posted December 17, 2014 by in Funk
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Rating

Overall
 
 
 
 
 

4/ 5

Details

Genre: ,
 
Producer: , , ,
 
Label:
 
 
 
 
Genre: Funk, soul, R&B
 
Producer: D'Angelo, Questlove, Pino Palladino, James Gadson
 
Label: RCA
 
Format: Digital download, compact disc, vinyl
 
Time: 55:54
 
Release Date: 15 December 2014
 
Spin This: "Sugah Daddy," "Another Life," "Back to the Future (Part I)"
 

Pros:

D'Angelo sounds refreshed, rejuvenated. The music builds on hardcore jazz, loose funk and Sign o' the Times jams
 

Cons:

A lack of a lead single might be detrimental to the album's legacy
 

Prince-inspired experimental funk and single-less, Black Messiah still raises the dead inside R&B

by J Matthew Cobb
Full Article

Prince-inspired experimental funk and single-less, Black Messiah still raises the dead inside R&B

It’s been fifteen years since neo-soul superstar Michael Eugene Archer dropped his last album, Voodoo. Although it was critically and commercially ignored then, that album has now been ascribed as one of the greatest landmark albums of our time (Rolling Stone placed it at No. 481 on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list). Since then a lot has changed in R&B; the fad of neo-soul is more of a thing of the past. With hardcore fans and his family of superfriends (Questlove, the Roots) all vying for a comeback, the pressure is on for Archer, known to the masses as D’Angelo, to return to his place of prominence. Only time will tell if that ever happens, but D’Angelo’s surprise LP, 2015’s Black Messiah, might just crack open the door for speculation. The twelve-track collection, mostly composed by the avant-garde soul star, was released digitally at the stroke of midnight on Monday (Dec 11), leaving brick and mortar stores in the dark on the Messiah’s return. The unexpected album release is being compared to Beyonce’s impromptu baby drop of her self-titled LP, but the recluse soul crooner is playing on a different playing field. While Bey drops an album almost every two years and remains atop the top of the pop music’s food chain when it comes to reigning R&B divas, D’Angelo is sharply being judged for the years of silence predating any new material.

Thankfully, Black Messiah does a good job in blending his signature retro funk cravings while also playing with something wilder and looser. It imbues the sounds of familiarity but presents a new world of riffs and grooves beyond D’Angelo’s first two discs. His voice still has more shades than a chameleon, sneaking through a tunnel of Al Green head tones and sexy Marvin Gaye sighs before exposing his love for Prince. It serves as the compass for this funk-embossed adventure, as he parades through ambiguous jazz and loose band jams like “Til It’s Done (Tutu)” and “The Door.” Nothing sounds as groove centric or as accessible as “Sugah Daddy.” With drummer pro James Gadson patting out the beats like a tap dancer, the song sounds as if “Brown Sugar” fell into the arms of Prince performing at Harlem’s Cotton Club. D’Angelo later returns to the land of funk on “Back to the Future,” a two-part exodus playing with The Roots-esque soul and earthy percussion. As he witnesses the heartache of now (“Back in Richmond, shit ain’t changed a bit ‘n/Niggas with a little piss ‘n got some attitudes”), he laments on returning back to the past. “I just wanna go back to the way it was,” the singer begs.

Like most artistic concept albums of yore, Black Messiah avoids going down the path of simplicity. From the jump, the album attempts to shake up the elements of Neapolitan funk. “Ain’t That Easy,” the album opener, sounds like Prince walking on the banks of Memphis blues. The disc finds its motif in “1000 Deaths,” where an inaudible D’Angelo and an earful of fuzz dominate much of the song. As the frequencies starts to find a place of balance and after a Louis Farrakhan-sounding preacher silences from declaring the blackness of Jesus, you can hear D’Angelo going into the mosh pits of danger: “Send me over the hill/I was born to kill.” Towards the end as Questlove beats out the unbreakable rhythm, an exorcism of Jimi Hendrix-like guitars can be heard in a distance. Without this event, there would be an obvious missing link to the album. Like Marvin Gaye, D’Angelo has always teetered between the dimensions of the sanctified and carnal. This, along with the spiritual funk of “Prayer,” allows him to connect the dots with the ambiguous album title. Clearly, Black Messiah could easily be referencing himself; famed rock critic Robert Christgau once called D’Angelo R&B Jesus.

Analysts may be a bit frustrated with the insubordinate lack of radio ready offerings. Virtually everything assembled here will face a world of shade from pop and urban R&B radio. The album closer, “Another Life,” might get a few nods from playlist managers since it plays up the sensual vibes of “Untitled” while channeling Stylistics/Philly soul love ballads, but that’s about it. Black Messiah doesn’t aspire to reach the masses and will probably be ignored by the majority. The album title could be proof of that: Anything in pop culture deemed controversial or subjective always travels the rough road to success. But D’Angelo and the Vanguard (a Roots-esque backing band sporting The Time’s Jesse Johnson, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer John Blackwell) have dropped a disc that is screaming for our attention. Like John the Baptist in the wilderness, this exploratory effort makes a mission to evangelize and convert souls to its peculiar way of life. It misses the goal of containing at least one instant single, but that’s all right; Black Messiah stands out as a monumental bastion in today’s world of dry, shiftless R&B.


About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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