opinion by PETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Before we raise our collective palms to this glorious record, I want to begin with a not-so-quick digression. The Surprise Release has become a semi-regular fact of life. All kvetching aside (“oh look, a new U2 album”), as a music fan, it’s a godsend. Shortly after midnight on Monday, as I was calling to close another boring day, internet klaxons announced that D’Angelo’s new album, which was officially confirmed a couple days prior, was available to purchase and stream. Muscle memory led the way. Moments later Black Messiah was a thing that existed; I owned it; its ones and zeroes, they were nestled on my lap. I grabbed my best headphones and exhaled deep relief. It was great. Really, reallygreat. So I gushed, but I didn’t gush alone. My roommate happened to be up late, doing the same in his room (klaxons are loud, and I heard his first). We picked apart each track, individually (remaining in our respective pre-D’Angelo locations in the house), and alongside one another (via text, ones and zeros to the rescue again). We swapped questions, insights, thrills. Sleep called to him just as a friend on the west coast appeared online: rinse, repeat. The sun ushered me to bed. Black Messiah tucked me in.
I recount this sequence of events because it had been a year-and-three-days since new music disrupted an evening, and much needed rest, so wonderfully and in the same way. Art proved wrong the widely accepted maxim that we’ve become utterly disconnected, that this is all just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. Black Messiah, much like BEYONCÉ before it, descended from on high and brought together individuals living in the same building, and also a continent apart. For this, we can thank The Surprise Release, not to mention a long awaited album well worthy of sleep deprivation.
Any time would have been the right time for Black Messiah to arrive, two years ago, five years ago, a decade ago, on the heels of Voodoo. This feels like the perfect time. D’Angelo rushed the album, which was originally planned for early next year. Many of these songs counteract still-fresh and disgusting headlines — the political injustice, the institutionalized racism, the militarized brutality, the human tragedy. Black Messiah recalls Sanford and Ferguson and Staten Island, often obliquely, on “The Charade” and “1000 Deaths.” On the former, D sings “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk.” On the latter, which opens with a fiery sample from the 1971 documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton”, he becomes a reluctant holy warrior (“Yaweh, Yehushua/ He don't want no coward soldier”). He concedes, and concludes, with “I was born to kill.” D’Angelo’s State of the Union address, “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” finds him flirting with fatalism with regard to environmental catastrophe and international bloodshed. Casting a gimlet eye on the Left’s political agenda, in the face of recent domestic atrocities, D’Angelo asks, “Do we even know what we're fighting for?” (A fitting corollary to “What’s Going On?”)
We return, most often, to the personal, to the spiritual, to the romantic, to the sexual — which are regularly jumbled into a mess of thoughts and themes. In other words, we return to where Voodoo left off. Black Messiah is as pious (“Lord, keep me away from temptation”) as it is crass (“I hit it so I made the pussy fart”), without contradiction. Or maybe any contradiction is buried within growling guitars, devastating funk grooves, and labyrinthine song structures. Black Messiah is not an easy album to digest, but, like Random Access Memories, it is designed for instant analogue relish: “1000 Deaths” howls, “Another Life” soars, “Prayer” thumps, “The Door” whistles, “Sugah Daddy” pounces, “Really Love” calls. The parts are spectacular. The whole is extraordinary.
D’Angelo reigns throughout Black Messiah, our soul Apollo, fully robed (“So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in/ I hope it ain't my abdomen that you're referring to”) and at his peak (“I got just what you need, babe”). Is this the Second Coming of Sly, or Prince, or Stevie, or Marvin? No. This is the Second Coming of D’Angelo, not a close second, but a continuation of that lineage. We’ve waited fifteen years for his finest album to date. Black Messiah comes with an instruction manual. The liner notes say, “For best results, listen at maximum volume.” It’s the most useful advice I’ve received all year.