As the fuzzy guitars of the opening track Ain’t That Easy wobble into life it becomes clear that a lot has happened to D’Angelo over the fourteen years since Voodoo. The slick, early 2000s production is gone in favour of grubby, live sounding instrumentation. The overarching sexual themes of his previous work yield to a more conscious, political focus. This makes sense given both the title Black Messiah, and its sudden release, in the midst of protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
D’Angelo established himself as a master of experimental, yet classic, soul and Black Messiah sees him push the boat out further than ever before; with backing musicians including The Roots’ Questlove, taking up the mantle of ‘the Vanguard’.
The guitars are fuzzier than ever before, distorted to a tone reminiscent of St.Vincent’s patent sound. This is most apparent on 1,000 Deaths a jittering, rubbling track that starts with a triumphant sample of a preacher laying down what could well be Black Messiah’s mission statement and ends with an equally victorious, blistering guitar solo. The following track The Charade cools things down a little with its Prince-esque opening giving way to a bouncing bassline, cementing the live feel of the preceding tracks. Next up is lead single and stand out track Suggah Daddy, dropped mere hours before the album itself, it serves as the perfect reintroduction of D’Angelo to the world. D’Angelo’s pitch-shifted, re-layered vocals take on the lead melody over creeping pianos and random squeaks in the background.
Really Love moves the album onto a series of more conventional but equally incredibly well put together tracks. Opening with velvety violins worthy of any classic romance, it purrs its way into a Spanish-guitar led slow jam, undercut with brooding, hushed vocal samples and tinged with melancholy. When D’Angelo sighs “I’m in really love with you” over the chorus, you believe it.
Back To The Future (Part 1) carries on in a similar vein, picking up the pace a little with an OutKast style grove. ‘I used to get real high now i’m just gettin’ buzzed’ D’Angelo sings reflecting both on some past love and his infamous history of substance abuse. Moving into the second half of Black Messiah, Prayer is a soulful masterpiece filled to the brim with soaring, heavy guitars and fittingly punctuated with church bells.
The Door is a cheery warning to an ex-lover, D’Angelo finding positivity in removing
someone from his life. The instrumentation is playful, opening with an upbeat, whistled melody, as are the lyrics: “I told you once, but twice, you wasn’t very nice” D’Angelo quips, tongue in cheek. Back To The Future (Part II) picks up where its predecessor left off, fading straight into a joyfully, funky hook. The track takes the listener back to the deconstructed, jittery instrumentation of Black Messiah’s opening songs, reaffirming the overall experimental and winky tone of the album.
Album closer Another Life ties together the off kilter production of the first half of the album with the smooth, more traditional instrumentation of its second to steady results. The sexiest track on the album, rivalled only by Really Love, this is a slow jam for 2015. Brooding and instrumentally complex, it’s six minutes of pure and progressive D’Angelo, ending with high notes only he could hit.