Let’s clear up something at the onset: Black Messiah would have been talked about all over the place no matter when it was released.
Fans of D’Angelo waited… and waited… and waited some more for new music from him for years. They endured his troubles with the law, health issues, and struggles with his demons (all chronicled in a 2012 GQ profile). They watched concert videos on YouTube. They heard rumours about him being in the studio. But, amidst all of this, there was nothing they could dig into, not since 2000’s Voodoo, a great record that took on canonical status partly because there was no follow-up for so long.
Now, of course, that follow-up is here. It actually was on the way, slated to arrive in the first quarter of 2015. But D’Angelo, reported the New York Times, didn’t want to wait any longer. He felt he had to say something…say this… and say it now.
The manner of its release was what got folks talking: an out-of-the-blue announcement that coincided with a 14 December listening party, which was then followed by sale online late on the night of the 14th and in stores the next day. Say what you will about the currency of major record labels these days, but it’s hard to imagine what indie concern could have pulled that off; it still takes a corporation to raise a blockbuster. The songs themselves are noteworthy in their own right, but the timing of the release overshadowed them initially, and with understandable reason.
As was noted damned near everywhere, this marks the second straight December a major black pop artist released a record without advance publicity. In 2013 it was Beyoncé…or, to be proper, Beyoncé. That album, with its stark beats, in-your-face proclamations of her womanly self and larger-than-life presentation, set the tone for much of the pop we heard in 2014. Not only were there all those permutations of “Drunk in Love” and “Flawless” but also her fellow self-empowering female pop stars Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj, who never met a guest verse opportunity she didn’t like (and whose own new album also just dropped, as planned, but with considerably less news flashiness). You can probably throw Taylor Swift into that general mix, although you won’t find anything about it on Spotify. If December surprises continue to happen, music critics may be forced to wait until January to compile their year-end Top 10 lists.
But Beyoncé and Black Messiah couldn’t possibly be more different records, even if they tried. Structurally, Beyoncé doesn’t sound all that apart from the rest of black pop, which has been expanding the palette of electronic beat-making for years now. Black Messiah, on the other hand, has an old-school essence and is proud of it. D’Angelo and his fellow musicians, credited as the Vanguard, spent hours and hours in the studio jamming and shaping tracks, which is pretty much how Voodoo was constructed. It’s even broken up into a “Side 1” and a “Side 2”, which the CD announces by the dropping of a needle on a record spinning on a turntable.
I’m not exactly sure when the moment came that black pop music played by live musicians came to be anachronistic: Drake? Soulja Boy? Whenever it was, the beatmaker-as-auteur approach has become so pervasive, it’s actually refreshing for those who remember such quaint accoutrements as guitars, basses, drums, horns and strings to hear them on a record made in the present tense. Actually, it wasn’t really all that long ago folks regularly made records this way, as long as you’re not measuring “long ago” in pop years. When Voodoo dropped 14 years ago, Destiny’s Child was a thing, and Justin Timberlake was in a boy band. There was no iPod, and streaming was a notion associated with water, not entertainment, which wasn’t yet called “content”. Aaliyah was still with us, and the not-yet-“Fancy” Azalea was ten years old.
So Black Messiah came to us, in more ways than one, from out of nowhere. But what, aside from the story of its maker’s last few years, accounts for its impact on the black pop conversation? Why does it feel like it has, if not an actual finger on the state of the black pop world, at least the potential to shape much of the black pop world going forward, much as Beyoncé did a year ago?
More than that, why is the conversation around Black Messiah so much more about the music than it was with Beyoncé? Why is the attention we’re paying to D’Angelo’s voice so much more intense than what we paid to Beyoncé’s? Why does this feel like the first black pop record since Public Enemy’s heyday to summon its now with such fierce urgency?
Let’s start with the de facto title track, “1000 Deaths”. Over a mean, insistent beat, we hear a snippet of a preacher proclaiming Jesus as a “black, revolutionary messiah” who refused to make a deal with the devil. That fades into a soundbite from The Murder of Fred Hampton, the documentary about the 1969 assassination of Black Panthers Hampton and Mark Clark by Chicago police, in which an angry black man announces the need to “struggle religiously to bring about the peace” against “a bunch of megalomaniac warmongers”. Then, D’Angelo describes his mood at the precipice of battle:
I can’t believe I can’t get over my fear
They’re gonna send me over the hill
Ah, the moment of truth is near
But by the chorus, he gets over that hear:
I won’t nut up when we up thick in the crunch
Because a coward dies a thousand times
But a soldier only dies just once
Before anyone gets a chance to wonder what Hampton’s story has to do with 2014, D’Angelo makes that clear on “The Charade”, a deceptively sweet, Prince-like pop production. Its sitar flourishes and hooky melody belie both the bitterness of today:
All we wanted was a chance to talk
“Stead we only got outlined in chalk
Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked
Revealing at the end of the day, the charade
And the perseverance to overcome it:
With the veil off our eyes we’ll truly see
And we’ll march on
And it really won’t take too long
And it really won’t take us very long
This is not a political album in the strictest sense; D’Angelo isn’t railing all that much about specific incidents or causes. Sometimes, it’s not about political issues at all; on “Sugah Daddy” and “Really Love”, he’s talking about what those titles basically imply. On “Back to the Future (Part 1)”, he alludes to that notorious video of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”, a memorable piece of work that contributed to his long disappearance from public view (“So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to / This what I want you to listen to”).
Black Messiah is a political album in a broader sense, however. The record is about how we people who are darker than blue can survive and live and outlast these hard and crazy times. He calls us to consider who, what and where we are on “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, then advises us to, literally, keep the faith on “Prayer”. His central notion is that there is no one person as the Official Black Messiah, but we each in fact can be one if we so choose. This album is his roadmap to and along that journey.
When he sings “Take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside / Let your days come away with me and ride” on “Ain’t That Easy”, the first impulse is to think he’s singing to a woman. But really it’s to all of us, especially those who waited… and waited… and waited some more to hear his voice again. The song is also for those who weren’t yet around or aware when Voodoo came out, whose worldview has been shaped by global terror and governmental responses to it, a planet whose natural resources are being degraded by the day, years of economic stagnation for those who weren’t already rich, the contrast between the hope of having a black man in the White House and the realities his six years there have brought us, and now the ongoing string of police officers killing black men without impunity.
Ah, yes: police brutality, protesters in the streets. The Ferguson, MO protests, which followed a grand jury’s decision to not indict Patrolman Darren Wilson after he shot and killed an unarmed black man, are drove D’Angelo to make Black Messiah happen now. Ultimately, it’s that content and tone, in a moment when prominent black athletes like LeBron James (with an assist, The Nation reported, from Beyoncé’s husband) are speaking out on political issues, that makes the album feel like an event, not just a bunch of new tunes.
How much Black Messiah already sounded like this before the mad rush to prepare it for immediate release, we might never know. This does seem to be, at its heart, essentially the album D’Angelo was about to finally give us, save those last-minute updates. But sometimes life won’t let a cultural statement that’s chomping at the bit wait for a proper marketing campaign. Goodness knows its timing couldn’t possibly have been any better.
We will see how far this statement resonates now that we’re settling down after its surprise appearance. Whether other black pop artists choose to speak this frankly about our world in 2015, we’ll all find out soon enough. One also has to wonder if such artists will speak this musically as well; Black Messiah is less throwback funk and more a vision of the possibilities of modern post-funk, although it’s clearly rooted in soul and funk traditions. For now, it’s already had one impact, in relation to its predecessor… that is, Beyoncé, not Voodoo.
Beyoncé was all over 2014’s black pop world, but it didn’t exhibit much interest in the world beyond Beyoncé. Its release made headlines, but its message didn’t extend much past “damn I’m fine, and nothing else even exists that I’m personally aware of, or plan to be anytime soon”. On “Flawless”, she over and again informs us, “I woke up like this”, a hardly modest testament to her glory and overall Beyoncé-ness. Everybody rocked it back in the day this past summer, including yours truly. But those days are over. Black Messiah renders such self-centered pronouncements from on high as shrill and insignificant, especially in a year when Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and far too many others can no longer wake up at all.