D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah (2014)

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About this time last year the RnB and pop world was abuzz over the totally unexpected new album dropped on us by Beyoncé. This time the record-from-nowhere comes from neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo, and this is one we should be paying much more attention to. If the buzz over D’Angelo’s Black Messiah reaches the oversaturation point, well, deal with it, because it is that rare instance of living up to the hype in an age where everything is blown up to outsized proportions.

D’Angelo’s masterly blend of old-style soul and contemporary hip-hop has come sparingly but impactfully: the debut Brown Sugar (1995) followed five years later by the opus Voodoo, and then nearly fifteen years of nothing. D’Angelo’s voice alternately extracts the essence of Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone, then casts against a hip-hop backdrop, answering the question of what those legends might have sounded like if they had hit their stride some twenty-five years later instead. There’s always been an subversive current to D’Angelo’s sound, stripping down the instruments to the essentials, layering on the vocals to the hilt and pushing that angular groove out to the front (Prince perfected this in the 80s).

For his encore, D’Angelo made this record with his backing band, The Vanguard, with reportedly some help with ?uestlove, bassist Pino Palladino, and drummer James Gadson. The Vanguard itself might be the key for anyone looking for clues to how D’Angelo’s music evolved from Voodoo: “It’s a different band,” he told NPR last May. “I think it’s a louder band, it’s a harder band. It’s more guitars, definitely, so it’s definitely more rock, you know.” There’s a six-string crunch that accompanies the loose, almost-sloppy thump of “Ain’t That Easy” guitar and those guitars absolutely screaming by the end of “1000 Deaths.” Moreover, it sounds more like that’s a real band behind him, not a collection of loops, samples and hired hands. He’s ‘keepin’ it real’ more than ever.

His realness comes not just in music but also in the message. Though conceived and made before the grand jury verdicts out of Ferguson and New York, D’Angelo bumped up Messiah from its scheduled early 2015 release because with lyrics speaking to race and violence, he felt it was music perfectly in sync with the spirit of this moment. And it is. There’s an anarchic vibe of “1000 Deaths” that you get even without words. The words speaking out at the bewilderment of ‘tragedy flows unbound and there’s no place to run’ on “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” raises all the same concerns that troubled Gaye on his social protest anthem “What’s Goin’ On,” and “The Charade” gives a succinct, tinely reading on the Brown/Garner protests currently raging: ‘All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked.’

D’Angelo’s genre diversions are sometimes startling. “Sugah Daddy” is an example where the ‘old school’ part of the hip-hop hybrid goes all the way back to the Andrews Sisters, snappy jazzy overtones sweeten up “Betray My Heart” and is that really flamenco coloring on “Really Love”? They’re all done plenty good enough, but soul remains his core strength and the album closer “Another Life” updates the Stylistics love jam with earnestness and flair.

Perhaps part my own enthusiasm over Messiah springs from the disappointment from Prince’s two new albums released with much pre-release fanfare just a few months ago. But we’ve never had a chance to miss Prince like we’ve missed D’Angelo — fourteen plus years is a long time to wait to follow up an album widely regarded as a classic. There’s a lot to live up to, but Black Messiah with its pertinent message, color-blurring harmonics and a total absence of slickness manages to do that, instantly obsoleting any year-end, ‘best of 2014′ lists that came out before this week…including mine.

There’s another riot goin’ on.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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