Album: Black Messiah
Singers: D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Banner: RCA Records
Price: Around Rs 750
D’Angelo’s 14-year vanishing act ended decisively with Black Messiah, his first new album since 2000. Black Messiah is knotty and inward-looking, made to reveal itself slowly. It doesn’t leap out of speakers; it oozes and bubbles, waiting for a listener to be drawn in. As it does, the pleasures and rewards keep growing.
With his 1995 debut album, Brown Sugar, and a slowly wrought follow-up, Voodoo, in 2000, D’Angelo took upon himself the mission of soul music’s most heroic figures: to be simultaneously an individual, a social conscience, a carnal being and a spiritual one. And, not incidentally, to be both steeped in musical history and ready to transform it, to reach for ever deeper grooves. He succeeded — so well, perhaps, that expectations for his next step grew overwhelming. To call the new album Black Messiah is to hint at a second coming, but the album’s notes insist, instead, that, “We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.”
D’Angelo didn’t spend those 14 years staying current with pop and R&B. Although the album is credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard, it’s no accident that two of its tracks are titled Back to the future (parts I and II), with the refrain, I just want to go back.
That deliberately retro approach — there’s even some electric sitar — is anything but austere. In layered vocals that aren’t always easy to decipher, D’Angelo sings about being an ardent lover, a soldier, an environmentalist, a humble worshipper and a bitter social observer who observes, in The charade, All we wanted was a chance to talk.
The most immediately scrutable song (and one that he had been playing live), Really love, somehow manages to entwine flamenco, swing, hip-hop and a responsive string arrangement behind its declaration of affection. Till it’s done (Tutu), which worries about “carbon pollution heating up the air”, is slippery, polytonal funk sung in a casual falsetto. 1000 deaths, with lyrics about a soldier facing battle, places bluesy guitar and a cackling clarinet amid a distorted barrage of drums, while The door, urging a lover not to “lock yourself out”, goes rural with slide guitar, tambourine and a lot of whistling.
D’Angelo alludes, here and there, to his long absence. The album’s opening song, Ain’t that easy, has him moaning and growling, You won’t believe what you have to sacrifice. In the jazzy Back to the future, part I, he sings: I been wondering if I ever can again/So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in.
D’Angelo always put being a musician before being a star. And after all this time, with all its glorious eccentricities, Black Messiah affirms that he was right all along.