By the time this review is published, the world will have had a good two months to settle in with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. Plenty of reviews have already been written, the album analyzed and listened to from countless angles. Its lyrics have been dissected and quoted plenty (“All we wanted was a chance to talk, ’stead we only got outlined in chalk”). Writers have called it a stunning return for the artist after a fifteen year absence, a work that is at once urgent and dripping with genuine soul, a record that perfectly captures some ineffable zeitgeist.
Who am I to disagree with any of this? Black Messiah is, in all sincerity, a revolutionary masterpiece — both of which are terms thrown casually around all too often, but in this case fully deserving. Those involved with the record’s production or its surprise roll-out have called it “the Apocalypse Now of Black music” (Questlove) and said that D’Angelo is “speaking to the times we live in” (Nelson George). But these are little more than platitudes, describing but not explaining. As for the reviews, they have been rightfully glowing, but completely lacking in getting at the heart of the matter.
This is par for the course as far as contemporary music journalism goes. I’d put forth that most music criticism has lost touch with its ability to square its standards of good, bad and brilliant against the real world. When a work’s erudition is somehow self-evident, we’re expected to take the reviewer’s explanation of “I know it when I see it” at face value. Quite frankly, it’s woefully insufficient, both in terms of Black Messiah and the growing pains that artists and their music are being forced through at this moment in time.
D’Angelo is forthright about the meaning behind the album’s title. He’s certainly banking on at least a sizeable portion of his audience understanding the reference to 1960’s and 70’s COINTELPRO efforts designed to prevent “the rise of a Black Messiah.” He’s also been quick, lest anyone get the wrong idea, to point out that he doesn’t see himself as fulfilling that role. Rather, he says, it is “about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.”
So he’s modest about it. Ecumenical even. And yet there is undeniably an air of the messiah’s viewpoint running through the album, precisely because there is a deliberate attempt to craft something of a time capsule, a signifier of a current collective psychology. D’Angelo is quite consciously attempting to see a little bit farther in all directions, placing one eye on his own musical past viz a viz the influences that shaped him (Sly, P-Funk, Prince, his Soulquarian associations) and the other on further tightening and expanding his musical elements through the lens of Tahrir, Occupy and the Ferguson uprisings.
Encapsulating all of this is obviously a massive challenge. What makes D’Angelo uniquely capable of pulling it off is his deft ability with creating a groove. The rhythms and licks throughout Black Messiah are naturally hypnotic, and D still knows how to prolong a theme just long enough so that it draws you in before jolting you into something new.
Of course it’s sexy and swaggering and cool. But it’s also thick and heavy, with a real air of struggle undergirding all of it. Frequently his riffs sound like they’re dragging a massive block of concrete behind them. Blending this with an air of cool isn’t exactly effortless, but it does come off sounding singularly formidable. The first two tracks — a song about toxic love followed by the building tempest put-up-or-shut-up of “1000 Deaths” — have so much going on they feel as if they could fall off rhythm at any time. The resulting effect is disorienting yet engaging, playing with the listener’s sense or time and surrounding.
To then go into a comparatively ethereal track like “The Charade” — also among the album’s most politically poignant — says something. Perhaps that there is something on the other side of a struggle through one’s own dehumanization. This theme, that the swirling chaos and injustice may actually in the long run point toward some kind of cathartic liberation , is one that returns time and again through the sonic landscape of Black Messiah.
Does this make the album really stand out? Indeed it does; distinctively so. One can appreciate that it took a decade and a half to craft a work like this. D’Angelo has wrestled his share of demons during that time — some personal, some collectively shared, some that managed to be both at the same time. The status of sex-symbol and the crown of “R&B Jesus” bestowed on him by Robert Christgau both clearly weighed heavy on the artist. How exactly does one wear these imminently commodifiable titles while also reckoning with their basic humanity? We’ve all seen enough celebrity meltdowns to know the answer to that question. Now add the basic burden of being Black in America to the mix.
Surmounting this has definitely been no mean task, but there’s something to be said for the context. Over the past few years there’s been a fairly large wordcount dedicated to a return of Afrofuturism. Much of it has centered around only the most obvious manifestations of a movement that has been gestating among artists of color for quite some time, but its arrival into a broader consciousness is notable and signals a renewed, broader discussion about the radical Black imagination. While calling all of this a "return" or "revival" would be somewhat insulting (denying the existence countless local, national and international artists of color who have been working in that milieu for years, decades even), the surge of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has placed its questions center stage.
What does it mean to experience love, hate, desire, anger, righteousness and all the rest on the same human plateau? What does it mean for the political and collective to become the most intimately felt emotion and vice versa? Naturally these are questions that anyone with a nuanced understanding of oppression asks on the regular; nobody who has read their Frantz Fanon or Angela Davis can call these queries new exactly.
What is new (or at the very least hasn’t happened for a couple decades now) is for these questions to be posed so pointed and unavoidably on such a massive scale. An attentive listening to Black Messiah reveals that D’Angelo himself is very publicly and vulnerably grappling with this. Though the album may not be an explicit work of Afrofuturism, the way in which the themes of messiah and redemption are deployed run in tight parallel to these same questions. What does it mean for the personal and political to intersect? Can a Black man in America bare his soul in the public arena and have it be accepted on its own terms? What does it mean for a dirty-sexy-dangerous love song to segue into a track that starts by sampling a speech from New Black Panther Party founder Khalil Abdul Muhammad? What does it mean to see one’s artistic prayers and revelations as inextricably in conversation with everyone else’s?
D’Angelo is up front about not having any clear-cut answers. The unsteady grooves of so many of the album’s songs seem to communicate that even at his most confident, there is still a struggle to gain solid footing. He isn’t “pointing the way forward.” He is, like all of us, standing on history’s precipice, trying to gain a clearer view of a still-unsure future.
This reaches its apex on the track “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”. Positioned just after Black Messiah’s halfway point, it was co-written with P-Funk member Kendra Foster (who has her fingerprints on eight of Messiah’s twelve tracks). It is, roughly similar to “The Charade,” on the lighter side of the album’s spectrum. There’s some fairly muscular guitar work here, but it’s balanced out by wafting keys and D’s almost cherubic falsetto:
In a world where we all circle the fiery sun
With a need for love
What have we become?
Tragedy flows unbound and there's no place to run
Till it's done
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon:
Where do we belong? Where do we come from?
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon
Till it's done
This is the first verse, framing later references to war and climate change. One walks away from the song with a somewhat novel takeaway: That rather than devastation simply being this undaunted context for all of us, it’s just as much the other way around. We are the context for the devastation and therefore have the ultimate ability to reshape it. Even as this editorial “we” (the audience, the listeners, the oppressed, however we want to label it) is struggling toward this greater, totalistic meaning, we are also coming to the realization that this same “we” is the totality itself. With this being the case, it’s easy to see why so many journos haven’t quite known how to handle Black Messiah even while singing its praises. The assertion that “we are the messiah” is so sincerely rendered that illustrating it through words either comes off as naive, heretical or both.
In the very same live review where he was dubbed “R&B Jesus,” Christgau also compared D’Angelo to Marvin Gaye. Fifteen years later that comparison rings uncanny. Marvin, of course, fought with his landmark What’s Going On? against the pigeonhole of sex symbol. Like D’Angelo, he grappled with the growing realization that exorcising his own demons also meant the redemption of a collective past. And, naturally, this wouldn’t be possible without some hopeful sense of a collective future. As a result, both have ended up creating forward-thinking works that — despite confounding the gatekeepers of taste — capture a split second of monumental transformation.
If all of this is true (and it is), then calling Black Messiah “timely” comes up short. So does labeling it as “timeless.” Both are apt enough, but while the former implies that it is organically rooted in the moment’s social climate, the latter is normally used to describe a mode that endures the ages. And while the two aren’t necessarily contradictory, finding them in the same work of pop music is rare. D’Angelo, like Marvin, has pulled that off, and it’s this that makes his album “revolutionary” in a way that goes well beyond any trite sense of the word.
Alexander Billet writes about music and poetry, and is on the editorial board of Red Wedge. His work has appeared in Jacobin, The Nation and the Electronic Intifada. He blogs at "Atonal Notes" and can be reached through his Twitter.
This article appears in Red Wedge Issue One: "Art + Revolution," which will be published in late February.