D'Angelo and the Vanguard's album, 'Black Messiah', is timeless music, an instant classic well worth the wait.RCA Records, 2014
9.5 / 10
Fourteen years ago, D’Angelo was a world-famous soul singer, adored by fans and loved by critics. He was seen as the heir-apparent to the throne of Gaye, Brown, Redding, Wonder, Hayes and Prince. After releasing only two studio albums, (1995’s excellent Brown Sugar and 2000’s even better Voodoo) D’Angelo mysteriously disappeared, leaving both his crown and throne unclaimed while uninteresting and wretched pretenders squabbled for recognition and legitimacy. Whatever the reasons may have been for D’Angelo’s abrupt self-imposed exile, (and the rumors and facts include the usual musical suspects of drugs and drink as well as other less sexy possibilities), they no longer matter. D’Angelo, the long-departed, surprised nearly everyone (and threw already finished year-end best-of lists into turmoil) by releasing his third studio album, Black Messiah, a week before Christmas with little fanfare or hype.
This is an album without artificiality. It’s not plastic or beholden to anyone’s vision but D’Angelo’s own. Although the song arrangements are meticulous and full of layers awaiting discovery, never does it threaten to run off its rails. Every note, it seems, has been thought out and planned beforehand, but with such care and craft as to seem effortless. The songs are full, earthy, and spontaneous, as though someone just happened to hit the record button while a band simply jammed. It is a rare occurrence that a record can be both so well constructed and also so loose and free.
Fourteen years is a long time for any musician to be away, no matter the cause, but D’Angelo isn’t just any musician. Helped by some familiar faces (including drummer Questlove, producer Q-Tip and Kendra Foster, who previously worked with George Clinton and Paraliament/Funkadelic) from the first two albums and credited here as “The Vanguard”, D’Angelo sounds as though he never left. The record picks up just where Voodoo ended, full of (analog recorded) funk, soul, gospel and rock and roll, then moving beyond the limitations of each of those genres. “Prayer” for instance, has a hint of Maggot Brain-like guitar, played by D’Angelo, an off-beat Pink Floyd-ish bell, and a confessional Prince vibe to the lyrics. (All the lyrics are credited to D’Angelo, Q-Tip and Foster.) But “Prayer” and the rest of the album are much more than just a list of ‘sounds like this and that.’ It’s timeless music, an instant classic well worth the wait.