With D’Angelo’s 14-year silence suddenly broken over Christmas, it’s almost a surprise to find the reclusive R&B enigma’s style so unchanged. Notwithstanding the occasional foray into jazz and blues, Black Messiah is much the same blend of miasmic boudoir soul, bare-bones funk and liberation songs that characterised his 2000 milestone, Voodoo. The opener, “Ain’t That Easy”, serves notice of what’s to follow, lurching in like an errant, strutting Sly Stone groove, built on the febrile flexibility of real analogue funk bass and drums, with D’Angelo’s layered falsetto sounding like a phalanx of Al Greens on their knees.
The focus shifts from the sensual to the political on “1000 Deaths”, which opens with a preacher testifying angrily over a rolling funk shuffle, before D’Angelo’s muffled, treated vocal confronts the dread of war and the nature of courage and cowardice. The political slant continues with the Prince-ly “The Charade”, where funk bass and crisp drums furnish the platform for his denunciation of a society in which his people are “relegated to savages bound by the way of the deceivers”.
It makes clear his intent with the tendentious album title, which D’Angelo claims refers not to an individual but a more general notion of freedom: “It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and everyplace a community has had enough and decides to make change.” Or, to paraphrase: There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The Sly & the Family Stone milestone is Black Messiah’s clearest model, providing both musical and atmospheric direction for the slithering “Prayer” and languid “Back to the Future”.
Riot’s sense of enervating confusion is there too in “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, which asks the crucial question: “Do we even know what we’re fighting for?”. If Black Messiah doesn’t offer any answers, it at least maps out some of the emotional territory behind the battle.
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