Grantland logo

Lightning Round: It Took D’Angelo 15 Years to Create His New Album, ‘Black Messiah’; It Took Us 15 Hours to Respond

We waited 15 years. It was worth it.

Last night, D’Angelo rose. After a 15-year wait (and with just three days’ warning), the soul maestro released his third album, the titanic Black Messiah, a collaboration with his band, The Vanguard. It’s impossible to measure a release this big in such a short span, but these are the instant emotional reactions from a collection of Grantland’s D’Angelo superfans.

Alex Pappademas: I’m a weirdo; this record just pushed most of the records on my personal year-end top-10 list down a slot, but can I talk about how these It’s Finally Here moments always bum me out a little? I knew in the second before I pushed “PLAY” on the new My Bloody Valentine album that I would never like any new My Bloody Valentine album as much as I liked thinking about what the new My Bloody Valentine album might sound like. I like wondering; I like building Chinese democracies in the clouds. And I mourn a little for the imaginary third D’Angelo records that never were.

Admit it: You were halfway ready for this to be some kind of transformational, cathartic brick, for him to reemerge with an incredibly competent bar-band blues album or some black–Scott Walker torture implement of a record — for him to try something, anything to move the conversation about him into a different room, out from under the royal portraits of Prince and Sly and Marvin and himself in the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video with abs shredded up like Crying Freeman’s. Who wouldn’t want to do that, under the circumstances? As much as I wanted this to be a great D’Angelo record, I wanted almost as badly for this to be D’Angelo pushing the whole idea of D’Angelo out to sea in a flaming canoe to kick off a confounding, Van Morrisonian third act that would involve playing a lot of jazz festivals with weird things pinned to his lapel. I wanted a mystifying D’Angelo record that would not come with the pressure to love it, one I might grow to love.

On the other hand: It’s a great D’Angelo record! Fifteen years late, right on time from the title and cover on in, more than strong enough to support the effusive critical response it’s destined to get because we’re all still worried he’ll see his shadow and dip out for another decade and a half! The rest of 40-year-old Michael Eugene Archer’s life will have to be super eventful for Black Messiah not to be the triumph at the end of the D’Angelo biopic.

Track 1, centered in the mix, unmistakable: “I tell you this sincerely/I need the comfort of your love/To bring out the best in me.” Voodoo D’Angelo could have said that, but he’d have stood apart from the words — half-hidden in the smoke, looking sideways at the song, turning the question of his commitment to the sentiment into its own kind of teasing trust-play. What do I even mean by comfort? What does my best even look like? When I say these things to you, how does it feel? This was the man whose idea of a statement that needed to be worked up to was “I’m gonna put it [vast, seductive, cat-yawn-length pause] on/The line,” who broke and stretched that lyric and the next one, “I’m gonna stick/I’m gonna stick to my guns,” until each promise assumed the form of a question. His sexiest song was called “Untitled.” I needed to live with Voodoo for 15 years to figure out that I like it because D’Angelo’s diffidence is so indie-rock — his feint of choice was swirl and groove-protraction instead of distortion, but the aestheticized evasion was fundamentally the same, the leaps of expression clipped and footnoted with acknowledgments that it’s all been said before.

Anyway: “I tell you this sincerely/I need the comfort of your love/To bring out the best in me.” He’s standing in front of you, telling you something true about himself for you to take or leave, while the whole band bites down hard on that groove. For the rest of the record he’s going to flit in and out of the mix as a singer, he’ll toy with our understanding of him as prone to disappearances, he’ll punch his vocal in and out on a song like “Prayer” as if drumming on the mute button, he’ll reach for that drive-thru speaker EQ setting on “1000 Deaths,” he’ll continue to come and go — but for at least the length of this song he intends to banish doubt. It’s not important where he’s been. He’s back. And he needs us as much as we need him.

d-angelo-black-messiah-album-cover

Steven Hyden: The comparison I can’t get out of my head is to Apocalypse Now, which I saw posited by Questlove last night on Twitter. He based it on the record’s emotional peaks and valleys — “it’s beautiful, it’s ugly, it’s truth, it’s lies.” I suppose he might have also meant that Black Messiah took forever to make and appeared from the outside to drive its chief architect to the brink of insanity. But I like to imagine that Black Messiah is like Apocalypse Now had the film been told from the point of view of Kurtz. Black Messiah feels like the culmination of a long, eventful journey for D’Angelo’s fans — at times it seemed like a treacherous boat ride into a dark jungle that was destined for an unhappy ending. But judging by initial listens, D’Angelo was resting where he always was, dreaming up hallucinatory psych-soul fantasias, following his mad-genius muse, and waiting the precise amount of time required to fully realize this third record before letting the rest of us hear it.

The most perfect song to me right now is “Another Life,” a beatific Delfonics-style throwback made of velvet gospel hollers and ghost alien harmonies, which I imagine must’ve made D’Angelo feel at peace long before it proceeded to blow all of our minds in the past 12 or so hours. People are already effusive in their love of this record, but I’m not sure D’Angelo needs that love. He made the record he wanted to make, and now it’s our job to rewrite the narrative we forced upon him in the last 15 years. We’re so used to our reclusive icons pissing away money and opportunity in pursuit of masterpieces that never materialize. But D’Angelo has delivered, with extreme prejudice. He was right, and we were wrong. In this version of the story, Kurtz sends Willard back up the river with a head full of answers.

Amos Barshad: Redemption is the greatest pop culture narrative, and it’s absolutely heartwarming to see D’Angelo actively reclaiming what is rightfully his. But there’s a disclaimer to all that. The dude’s always had a healthy reluctance to fame, and if he is indeed back, that seems worth remembering now.

In an excellent 2012 GQ profile, Amy Wallace digs up all the bullshit that came into his life after the watershed moment of the “Untitled” video — how the shrieks of “Take it off!” would come right at the start of the tour, how he’d delay the shows to get extra stomach crunches in if he wasn’t canceling the shows altogether, how he’d “explode … and throw things,” and how, often, he’d “give in, peeling off his shirt,” all the while “resent[ing] being reduced to that.”

That’s all a long time ago. But the pervasive image of D’Angelo is still that of him gloriously naked. I’m glad Questlove and D’s legions of adoring fans have lovingly bullied him into putting this thing out, I really am. Once-in-a-lifetime talent shouldn’t be left on the shelf; with great power comes great responsibility, etc. But this is the guy who once told Quest “Yo, man, I cannot wait until this fucking tour is over. I’m going to go in the woods, drink some hooch, grow a beard, and get fat.” I hope he enjoys all of this. He deserves to.

Mark Lisanti: Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had time to give Black Messiah the kind of deep listen that virtually everyone in my Twitter feed began at approximately midnight ET last night. My life is worse for it. And there is plenty of time — 15 years, give or take — to play catch-up before the next album drops. There’s time to let this one breathe heavily in your ear.

I can, however, recommend Black Messiah as the most erotic background music possible for a busy morning of editing. My mental panties have been obliterated, reconstituted, and then obliterated again, more times than I care to count, as I channeled its simmering carnal energy into my work. Trust me on this, should you throw it up in a Spotify window as you attempt to get on with your day: Your brain sweats. You touch the keyboard with a little more purpose, linger over the words on the screen a little longer. You take off all your clothes and just sit with it for a while, because you’re working from home in the morning, nobody is the wiser, nobody knows you’re standing up periodically to make that “check out my magic triangle” motion toward your hips, where there is no D’Angelo-style triangle to be found, just a regular doughy guy’s hip situation.

Good record, though. Good record.

Sean Fennessey: The first time I heard about “The Charade” it was 2011 and Questlove was telling Pitchfork about a filtered trombone patch D was implementing, inspired by the engineers who helped Stevie Wonder during his unparalleled ’70s run — patching is a production technique so obtuse and diagrammatical it comes all the way back around to romantic. There always seemed to be a watchmaker’s integrity about the long construction of Black Messiah, a fiddling mythology about how long it takes to make great things. And Black Messiah is messily precise, a ramshackle gospel of overdubs and swelling hexagonal production. Many people are now pointing to the album’s sweeping, scratchy brilliance as proof of such patience’s virtue. But the here and now of “The Charade” is profound and insistent. The song may be three or seven or 15 years old, but it is also today. The chorus:

All we wanted was a chance to talk
‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk
Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked
Revealing at the end of the day, the charade

Whether the nation’s recent events — death, injustice, the churning stasis of a broken bureaucratic indifference — spurred D’Angelo to release Black Messiah, or this has just been a cleverly construed coincidence by managers and overseers, doesn’t really matter. “The Charade” is a song that builds in the way that the anticipation of this album has built, and also in the way that 2014 built: frustration, dejection, bad news, loss of faith, twisting into some claustrophobic swirl … until we get to the 2:16 mark and then D’Angelo lets that cat’s whine roar, “And it really won’t take us very looooong” — a tommy gun drum fill bursts in, and a song that has been a gut shot at the end of a long year of gut punches suddenly turns hopeful. Old song, new song, it’s a song I needed.

Chris Ryan:  When I think of D’Angelo, I see him ensconced behind a Hammond organ. There is something about the keys that obscures — like you’re hiding behind your instrument in some way. This image, of course, aided the mystery surrounding the musician. Even when he was standing right in front of us, it was hard to know the real D’Angelo. And when he took more than a decade away from the public eye, the mystery became a myth. In the 15 years since he’s released an album, we’ve come to expect our artists to keep in touch. The curtain is always open. Who would we find waiting on the stage?

I am thrilled to report that D’Angelo is a gunslinger. The Funkadelic is strong with this one. Black Messiah‘s first side — especially “Ain’t That Easy,” “1000 Deaths,” and “The Charade” — is powered by guitars. Questlove’s clap-snares and the various vamping organs are still there, as is Pino Palladino’s bop-gun bass. But the man with one name is leading with his six-shooter this time. Playing like some hydra of Bomb Squad samples, Eddie Hazel, and Prince, D’Angelo The Guitar Player adds a new dimension to these songs. This set is more confrontational than anything he’s released before, partly because of the subject matter, and partly because of the fucked-up world it has been released into. I’ve seen many rightly point to the powerful lyrics on Black Messiah, but in many ways the guitar work on this album articulates something equally profound.

Rembert Browne: I was certain this album was going to be 12 “Sugah Daddy” tracks.

That’s a hell of a song, and having heard it for years now, I was convinced — should we ever get an album — it would be various versions of that. D’Angelo as jam band extraordinaire, putting out a project showing the 2.0 version of himself that was a second cousin of Prince’s Musicology. I was ready for it, but had a feeling it wasn’t going to stick. And that worried me.

But then he gave us Black Messiah. 

He called it Black Messiah, but I also would have been fine with Langston Hughes Music or Boppin’ With Baldwin. Because songs like “Really Love” and “The Charade” transport me. To a good place. A lawless place. A smoky place. A jook joint of sorts. Or some very homey apartment. A place where everyone is vulnerable and impressive. I feel the same way with “Prayer.” By this point in the evening, Maya Angelou would have stood up after a few glasses of wine and begun strutting around the room, freestyling, as everyone else egged her on. Especially Baldwin.

It’s a very visual album for me, as if the tracks were soundtracks to August Wilson plays from various decades. D’Angelo, channeling himself and organically inserting himself into various eras in black history. It’s stunning how much ground he covers in one album without it feeling scattered or unfocused. Quite the contrary, each song feels part of the same family.

Wesley Morris: In honor of this album’s gospel thump, we should be honest about this. We’d forgotten the touch of a man, what it feels like for that shiver of “oooo oooo!” to sprint up through you. The hard claps, the smoke rising from the keyboard, the wails, mumbles, and moans. Pop is riddled with men who want to fuck you. Here is a man who needs — expects — the same in return. He wants to hold and to be held, and that need doesn’t compromise his manliness. Desire simply enhances it. This is a man whose protest songs still require a prophylactic.

D’Angelo vanished right at the moment that black music turned white — or significantly, less black. The appropriation was swift and thorough and largely sexless. The very good Mayer Hawthorne is D’Angelo via Steely Dan and the Partridge Family. He, like Justins Timberlake and Bieber, like Robin Thicke, and Nick Jonas, and, to a different but not unrelated extent, Sam Smith, can sing about sex without stirring a desire to have any.

This isn’t a matter of whiteness. It’s a matter of taking a path of least cultural resistance. Despite Bieber’s best efforts, there’s nothing to fear, and these cute, white artists also happened to be different flavors of safety and fantasy. They give the listener the control. They’re working for you. Meanwhile, black male singers became hipsters, underground items, “neo-soul,” or Ne-Yo. Usher is one of current pop’s most sexual-sounding black stars. Half a decade ago, his “Good Kisser,” from the summer, would have been a song of the year. Now it lingers like a novelty.

While D’Angelo was gone, women started lusting after vampires and zombies — so things went from bad to worse, boys to undead men. If anybody was sounding like they wanted and wanted to be wanted, it was women. To be fair, Timberlake is trying to do it to you. He brought sexy back, blurring lines. The other night I paid to see Timberlake, who sold out the Barclays Center, and by the time the show reached its third hour — conflating his hits with the best of Elvis, Michael, and the underrated queen of the Sound Machine, Gloria Estefan — we’d gotten more than we paid for. Despite a turgid album, Timberlake is a star. We know that. He knows that. He spent three hours thrusting and gyrating and I loved most of it. But the back is not where sexy happens.

D’Angelo is all front, an erotic synthesis of vocal softness and libidinal hardness. This won’t come as news to him: He plays the organ. Sex is in his air, his liquor, his smokes. Black Messiah has a rich, thick texture — the wuh-wuh-wuh of the keyboards, the sweat flying off the cymbals, the heavy-marching, late-Prince quality of the guitar playing and Funkadelic-type mille-feuille vocal layering that opens the record and  the triumphal ecstasy of his singing (Ron Isley pulling up to Chaka Khan’s house) that winds it down. This is what pop’s been missing. Its absence is what has killed some rock and roll. I fuck. You fuck. Let’s sing about it. Let’s sound like we’re doing it. Of course, that first song is called “Ain’t That Easy.” That’s no accident. The album is about coming back to sex church. But it’s more than a come-to-Jesus moment. It’s come for Jesus.