Wednesday, December 17, 2014

album review: 'black messiah' by d'angelo and the vanguard

So imagine you're a music critic for a major publication, and you've just finished submitting your picks for your year-end list of the best albums of the year. A stressful choice, and a list that will inevitably be inundated by angry protests and comments why other albums weren't chosen, but you're secure in your picks - it's not like anyone drops albums worth caring about in December, right - 

Wait, didn't I say all of this last year with Beyonce's self-titled album that came out of nowhere? Well, if anything, this release might be even more surprising, from one of the most critically acclaimed and respected and yet reclusive R&B artists to ever chart, one of the men responsible for starting the neo-soul movement in the 90s with music drenched in the iconography of the past while still making music that felt relevant and modern.

Yep, we're talking about D'Angelo, an R&B star who emerged a wave of potent buzz in the mid-90s with Brown Sugar, which eventually became a commercial success but was a critical darling right out of the gate. And having revisited that album since, I can see why: D'Angelo wasn't a forceful presence behind the microphone, but he didn't need to be - the man wrote slick, beautifully textured music, had buckets of charisma and sensuality, and was a pretty damn good songwriter to boot. This was a guy who was a peer of Usher, R.Kelly, Raphael Saadiq and Boyz 2 Men, and yet he stayed away from much of the histrionics of the times to stick with more subtle, restrained, yet just as passionate music. As such, his albums have a timeless feel to them that's impossible to fake. This is a guy who could cover Smokey Robinson's classic 'Cruisin' and do it justice, and that's pretty damn impressive. 

From there, D'Angelo took several years off and came back with Voodoo in 2000, and while I can't say I was the biggest fan to move more in a groove-centric direction over melodies, it doesn't make the album any less great. And make no mistake, Voodoo is a damn great record: smooth as hell, funky, poetic, and sexy as all hell. It was Voodoo's commercial hits that led to D'Angelo becoming a sex symbol in R&B - which sadly was one of the reasons he stopped touring. Between that and some personal problems, he took a long hiatus from recording his own projects, vanishing from the spotlight outside of a few scattered guest appearances. And while there had been rumours D'Angelo was going to make that third album, it was often compared to the long-nascent project Smile by Brian Williams - a record that was actually completed ten years ago after decades in development and is goddamn amazing.

And yet, in one of the biggest surprises of the new year, D'Angelo is back with a new album, and from the rave reviews and sheer panic from sites that already published their year-end lists to praise it, I had to hear this record. So I checked out Black Messiah - how is it?

Well, it's awesome. There are cases where I disagree with the majority of critics, but this isn't one of them, because Black Messiah is exactly the sort of comeback album that I wanted to hear from D'Angelo - refreshingly modern in tone and lyrics, even experimental in its approach and sound, and yet from the analog recording to the rich organic palette on the table, an album that feels heavily indebted to the greats in funk, soul, gospel, and 70s R&B, with a hefty load of Prince as well, especially in the lyrics. In a year that has featured one of the strongest comebacks for R&B and soul on record, this is the perfect way to finish the year, a strikingly potent and textured album that might just be one of the best of the year. 

So let me start with the change that I expected but still definitely appreciated - D'Angelo's voice. Nearly fifteen years has aged his voice from the smoother crooning tones and added a little roughness, and I can't tell you how much it just works against this brand of production. He still has his incredible range, but expanding beyond his whispers to more full-throated singing is a perfect choice, especially when the songs venture away from the bedroom to more hard-edged political material. Sure, his voice can come across as a little nasal at points, but part of that is age and it's an element that doesn't feel put on or an imitation of those old-school funk and soul singers of the past.

Now I mentioned the production and instrumentation had gotten a little rougher, and it's probably one of the best features of this album. Great sharp drumwork, wheedling guitars that aren't afraid to get a little more aggressive or distorted, very prominent melody lines that might come across as basic until you start untangling the subtleties in the harmonies, and, of course, phenomenal bass work from Pino Palladino. And all of it is through production that is spacious yet intimate, with sharp textured edges but still incredibly melodic and smooth. From the opening rollick of the groove on 'Ain't That Easy' with the stuttered handclaps, there's an analog warmth to the record that has warmth but also some experimental or slightly off-kilter turns that call back to jazz and funk. And the great instrumental moments keep coming: the bubbling funk of '1000 Deaths' with a subtle growl to the guitar and D'Angelo's voice beneath a layer of fuzz that breaks for warped howls against a squealing guitar solo, the firm uptempo bass and drums on 'The Charade' against the interweaving guitar melodies and subtle trombones, the rollicking tap of the beat, horn, slightly off-kilter piano melody and swirling, warped vocals on 'Sugah Daddy', the gorgeous strings transition into Spanish guitar that builds into a fantastically textured slow jam, the subtle crackle of the picked guitars, strings and what sounds like a harp on 'Back To The Future (Part 1)' - guitar leads that sound reversed on 'Part 2'. And that's not touching on the superb guitar melodies on 'Till It's Done (Tutu)', the burbling melody and horns on 'Betray My Heart' the clipped guitars and bells on 'Prayer', or the fluttering arpeggios from the guitars and pianos on the soulful 'Another Life'. I can't even level my usual complaint against D'Angelo that his material can drag or lose momentum, because this might be one of the most tight and intricate collection of compositions. If I were to point to a few instrumental moments I didn't precisely love, they'd be that lingering eerie synth oscillation at the back of 'Prayer' or the whistles on 'The Door' - sure, they recalled a lot of old-school blues and the guitar work had a ton of texture, they just didn't quite blend well with the rest of the album.

And now onto lyrics and themes - and let me say right out of the gate that I really do like how D'Angelo presents his more sexual tracks on this album - not quite explicit, but they're steeped in genuine passion that makes the simplicity work. There are a few lines that did raise my eyebrows, especially on 'Ain't That Easy' and 'Sugah Daddy' with the line about pussy farts, but that's pretty much par for the course with this sort in this material, and pretty easily ignored. But it's the political tracks on this album that really gripped me - D'Angelo said he rushed this record's release date to get it out in 2014 given the social climate this year for the black community in the US, and his political moments hit hard. The courage of '1000 Deaths', the potent social commentary of 'The Charade' and 'Till It's Done (Tutu)' that touches on existentialism, these moments don't just feel fresh and relevant, but soulful and powerful that recalls many similar anthems in the mid-70s. I will say he could have done a little more with 'Prayer' - it's a adaptation of the Lord's Prayer, and I get the feeling a little more could have been done with the text in order to better help the message. 

But more than anything, most of this album surrounds themes of D'Angelo's return. Hesitation to return to the spotlight, often placed through metaphors of longing for that past simplicity, whether in relationships or the success he obtained. He longs for that old fire to return - and if this album isn't plenty of evidence that the fire is back in force, I don't know what is. Folks, this album is something special - one of the rare comeback albums that isn't just a match for his old material, but that feels fresh, new, and vital all the same. It's not an incredibly dense record lyrically, but it doesn't need to be - this is a record that grips something deeper, and for me gets a strong 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, this is the real deal and something many have been waiting almost a decade and a half to see. If you want a record that breathes potent soul, look up Black Messiah by D'Angelo & The Vanguard - I promise you won't regret it.

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