A Voodoo Chant Before a Strange Magic
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D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s Black Messiah at Four
THERE are artists who leave long gaps between albums...
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and the suspense and intrigue builds! It took The Avalanches sixteen years to follow their 2000 debut, Since I Left You; Kate Bush left it twelve years before Aerial came along in 2005 and it has taken some artists even longer than that to give us new material – consider Parliament and The Stooges! D’Angelo’s debut album, Brown Sugar, and it was a big hit with the critics – as were his subsequent two albums. Some highlighted simplicity in the lyrics but a richness in the music and that very special and smooth voice. Perhaps many were not expecting such a gap between releases but it took five years for D’Angelo to follow up such a big record. Voodoo will be familiar to many and is an album that translates marvellously. You do not need to be steeped in Hip-Hop and R&B knowledge to understand the record; you do not need to know about D’Angelo to understand what is happening and where he is coming from. One of the reasons there was a five-year gap between records was extensive touring of Brown Sugar (two years) and a writer’s block that followed. The birth of his first child coupled with some collaborations and recordings – including a duet with Lauryn Hill on her sole solo album – kept the flame alive and provided inspiration. Voodoo received huge acclaim and is seen as one of the finest albums of the last decade. There is emphasis on groove over melody but it is a daring and hugely significant accomplishment.
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Pitchfork, in a retrospective review, assessed Voodoo in these terms:
“There's a big difference between a prodigious, smooth-skinned 26-year-old playing retro-styled music and a 38-year-old doing the same thing. The backwards-looking pose can calcify; by the time Prince was 38, he was well into his symbol phase. That said, D'Angelo is the quintessential old soul. And there's hope in the comebacks of fellow 90s refugees Maxwell and Badu, who both released some of their best work after long layoffs over the last few years. But D'Angelo's inactivity has only helped to inflate Voodoo's myth, though it doesn't need much help. It's frustrating to think about how someone so enamored with the past, who knew his heroes' failures so well, could be doomed to repeat them. It's almost as if he studied them too much, and the same spiritual power that fueled his greatest moment couldn't help but bring him down. Like that's how he thought it was supposed to go. In an interview between ?uestlove and D around the release of Voodoo, the drummer confronted the singer about his idols: "They all have one thing in common, they were all vanguards, but 98% of them crashed and burned." To which D'Angelo responded: "I think about that all the time”.
Again, after a big and lauded record, many assumed D’Angelo would produce something fairly quick; not leaving the same gap as he did between Brown Sugar and Voodoo.
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D’Angelo suffered performance issues whilst promoting Voodoo in 2000. He grew uncomfortable with the pressure and the impression that he was this sex symbol. He soon retreated from the public gaze and suffered personal tragedy (a close friend of his committed suicide). His alcoholism had worsened – one can forgive him for this – his girlfriend left him and his personal life was unravelling. There was funding for a solo album and Virgin cut off the funds by 2004. There was huge demand for fresh D’Angelo material but, given the pressures and expectations as a live performer and events in his personal life; it was not going to be possible for D’Angelo to record a new album. In the ensuring three years there were collaborations with Hip-Hop artists and peers but nothing full-length and especially striking. By 2009, D’Angelo’s then-new manager Lindsay Guion revealed plans for a new album and collaborations with artists such as Kanye West. It was not until 2010 when a new song, 1000 Deaths, came to light. It seemed the tortured and troubled star was back in good health and definitely on the road to recovery. The release of that track seemed like a brief blip – the song was removed online because of copyright issues – and many wondered whether it was a hoax and whether an album would follow. 2011 saw more news come regarding a record and its status.
Every D’Angelo album is a classic and one that is laboured over so one could not have expected a quick release. 2011 was an announcement and status to say a record was coming but it would take another three years until Black Messiah reached the public. In fact, as early as 2011 (December) we were being told the album was virtually done and there was a lot of excitement. There was, as I say, not a quick release or a lot of news between 2011 and 2014 but D’Angelo did make a return to the stage in 2012. I recall buying Black Messiah on 15th December, 2014 and being fairly new to D’Angelo. I had heard some of his tracks from Voodoo – including Playa Playa and The Joint – but was not completely familiar. I think Black Messiah has influenced many Hip-Hop and Jazz-inspired albums since (including Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015) and huge albums like Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016). Every Hip-Hop/R&B album, to an extent, is compelled by social injustices and an authentic voice. Look at the most potent and enduring Hip-Hop records and, at their heart, is an anger and observation regarding the experiences of black Americans. Black Messiah boosts plenty of luscious testimonies and passionate calls but there is the political and social outrage. It is clear Black Messiah is about the struggle of D’Angelo and his recovery but it is about the wider world: the experience of his peers; crimes and outrages in America and a sense of alienation.
One can forgive him the fourteen-year pause between records given the textures and layers that run throughout Black Messiah. With The Vanguard – like D’Angelo’s equivalent of Prince’s The Revolution -; fans and critics alike were blown away by the sheer detail and brilliance of the artist’s third album. D’Angelo mixed R&B, Soul and Hip-Hop together with Jazz and myriad sounds. The compositions are incredibly vibrant, fascinating and skilled and you can tell how hard D’Angelo and his band worked in the studio. With D’Angelo helming production – Alan Leeds and Kevin Liles are executive producers –; Black Messiah is a deeply personal album but one that reflects what is happening in the world and is incredible accessible. Whether you are more attracted to arresting songs like 1000 Deaths and The Door or something more caramel such as Really Love and Back to the Future (Part I); there is so much activity, life and variation. Upon its release, there were comparisons made between Black Messiah and Sly and the Family Stone’s classic, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That comparison was made because of the cross-pollination of genres and the heavily multitracked vocals. Critical reaction, as I said, was intense and positive. In fact, I had not heard of any album quite like Black Messiah. Few albums since then have received quite the same sort of incredible reaction and celebration.
AllMusic gave their view on Black Messiah:
“On the surface, "Sugah Daddy" seems like an unassuming exercise in fusing black music innovations that span decades, and then, through close listening, the content of D'Angelo's impish gibberish becomes clear. At the other end, there's "Another Life," a wailing, tugging ballad for the ages that sounds like a lost Chicago-Philly hybrid, sitar and all, with a mix that emphasizes the drums. Black Messiah clashes with mainstream R&B trends as much as Voodoo did in 2000. Unsurprisingly, the artist's label picked this album's tamest, most traditional segment -- the acoustic ballad "Really Love" -- as the first song serviced to commercial radio. It's the one closest to "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," the Voodoo cut that, due to its revealing video, made D'Angelo feel as if his image was getting across more than his music. In the following song, the strutting "Back to the Future (Part I)," D'Angelo gets wistful about a lost love and directly references that chapter: "So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in/I hope it ain't my abdomen that you're referring to." The mere existence of his third album evinces that, creatively, he's doing all right. That the album reaffirms the weakest-link status of his singular debut is something else”.
Pitchfork shared these views and provided their own spin:
“Black Messiah is a study in controlled chaos. The nightmarish chorus of "1000 Deaths" arrives late and fierce, as though the band unfurled its crunchy, lumbering vamp just long enough to violently snatch it out from under us. "The Charade"'s Minneapolis sound funk rock follows, every bit as bright as the previous track was menacing until you zero in on the threadbare heart-sickness of D and P-Funk affiliate Kendra Foster’s lyrics. Black Messiah pulls together disparate threads few predecessors have had the smarts or audacity to unite. One song might channel Funkadelic, another, the Revolution, but the shiftless mad doctor experimentation and the mannered messiness at the root of it all is unmistakably the Vanguard. Black Messiah is a dictionary of soul, but D'Angelo is the rare classicist able to filter the attributes of the greats in the canon into a sound distinctly his own. It’s at once familiar and oddly unprecedented, a peculiar trick to pull on an album recorded over the span of a decade”.
Many other reviews echo these sentiments and it is amazing to think, when you truly listen to the album, how it came to be. Given the past troubles for D’Angelo, many felt there would not be another album. Not only did he manage to release a record but many consider it to be his very best. Every song has its place and is an incredible achievement. The Guardian, in this article, broke the album down song-by-song and got to the roots. My three favourite tracks from the album were assessed:
This has a playful feel and, again, a tampered-with tempo. The production so far and arrangements create a sound that is stoned, loping and molasses-thick, while lyrical torpedoes are delivered via torpid funk. It is – to quote Chris Rock talking about his new movie Top Five – “really black, the way George Clinton’s really black, like the Ohio Players – Fire, Sweet Sticky Thing – is just some black shit. That shit is black. Like a white man has nothing to do with this shit.” Rock is one of several celebrities who have been waiting for this release for a long time, ever since D’Angelo – and his fellow “nu soul” artistes Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and India.Arie – largely failed to deliver on their early promise.
Back to the Future (Part 1)
This is another crisply executed slice of smooth falsetto funk, reminiscent of Sly’s If You Want Me to Stay. “I just wanna go back, baby – back to the way it was,” sings D’Angelo, his voice not treated here. He could be talking about funk music, or about the days when he began music-making, before he became objectified like so many female performers before him. He seems to allude to this here: “Wonderin’ about the shape I’m in – hope it ain’t my abdomen”...
This is the first apparent love song on the album from the tormented soul man and preacher’s son who used to dream of that other trouble man, Marvin. As with much of Gaye’s work, Really Love is torn between sex and the sacred. It starts with strings, a female Spanish voice and Spanish guitar, both to caressing effect. The tempo picks up, and there are more handclaps. This one is more crisply produced, not so dense, a cleaner affair: upmarket boudoir funk. “When you call my name,” sighs D’Angelo. This is what R&B was like before the Weeknd”.
It has yet to be seen whether D’Angelo is going to release another album. He has performed as recently as 2016 so there is no suggestion Black Messiah marks the end for him. One hopes there is not such a gap before we see his next album – even if we had to wait another five years, many would be feeling itchy. He is in a more stable state and there are not the same troubles in front as him he saw after Voodoo. Many would have felt such a gap between albums would weaken his skillset or see a lack of focus. If anything, Black Messiah is his sharpest, most brilliant and daring work that will stand the test of time. I am excited to see where he heads next. Just over four years after Black Messiah’s release; I look at the album and amazed by its nuance and sense of legacy. It is as relevant now as it was in 2014 and I can hear the influence in modern R&B and Hip-Hop. If you have not heard the album then I recommend you check out it out. Even if you are not aware of D’Angelo and his work, that does not matter. Black Messiah is a masterful work and one that seems to grow in strength and relevance...
PHOTO CREDIT: Albert Watson
LIKE few other records.