D’Angelo & The Vanguard – ‘Black Messiah’ (RCA)

Not exactly 14 years in the making due to a much-publicised hiatus that took in poor health, depression, alcohol and substance abuse, not to mention a near fatal car crash, Black Messiah is an album that carries the expectation of a generation of fans. D’Angelo’s new long player, lest we forget, has carried a near-mythical status since the early noughties. President Obama was a distant pipe dream, Beyoncé wasn’t a solo artist, Grime was in its incubator period, Dubstep was yet to be created, and the much-sampled Nu-Soul movement of the late nineties was dying a swift and undignified death. All in all, the world was a fairly different place. Michael Archer was 26 when his emblematic near-masterpiece Voodoo was released – he’s now 40.

The artist with a childhood fascination for both the religious scripture of his father and the music of Marvin Gaye was just that; an artist who carried two conflicting and enforced depictions of himself to the masses; the intricate musician, producer and performer, the obvious successor to the likes of Prince, Marvin and Sly Stone, yet the sex symbol who reduced a generation of women to highly-sexed rubble with his‘Untitled (How Does It Feel)’ video and blew apart the 2000 MTV Awards with his live show – both performed with a significant lack of clothing.

So, why now? Have over two years of live shows under his belt (kicking off in Sweden in early 2012), perhaps instilled a steadily building confidence in the thirst for his talents? A new band, The Vanguard, replacing members of the quietly influential Soulqarians collective, would certainly indicate a renewed vigour, with his own interest in guitar taking centre stage throughout the course of this album. Yet released amongst the disgust surrounding the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the on going social and political atrocities and state-protected oppression of people of colour in the United States can’t be ignored. The title itself refers to “the world, people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen”. So we’ve undoubtedly moved on from the romantically anchored relationship studies of 1995’s classic Brown Sugar.

With co-writing credits from both Q-Tip and Kendra Foster, plus a band that consists of some of the most legendary session players operating in the modern recording industry (Pino Palladino, ?uestlove, James Gadson), Black Messiah swiftly moves into unheard of territory for D’Angelo, yet retains a boiled-down warmth and vigour that should immediately satisfy long-term fans. ‘Ain’t That Easy’ fades in with a wail of tempered guitar before dropping down into a low-slung groove of workmanlike drums, guitar licks and production flourishes. Gone is the slow creeping mystical sorcery of ‘Voodoo’’s ‘Playa Playa’, replaced with a slow mud-Funk that harks right back to the fret work of pioneering blues players like John Lee Hooker.

It’s D’Angelo’s guitar that’s pushed to the front of the mix throughout this album. An instrument that used to come second to his masterful use of the piano, his superb RBMA lecture exemplified the focal point that the guitar has become of late; “I was always emulating the guitar and bass on the piano”. ‘1000 Deaths’ sees the spirit of Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield invoked amongst the sludge-like atmosphere, with a distorted vocal track and ballsy hook that is pure earthen Funk, and puts early noughties pretenders like Cody ChestnuTT to shame. All this whilst D’Angelo is in firm combative mode: “I can’t believe I can’t get over my fear / they’re gonna send me over the hill”.

‘The Charade’ follows as one of the largest doffs of the cap towards Prince’s rockier output that you could ask for, whilst hands down containing D’s most outwardly political lyricism to date. That unmistakable vocal dips into lyrics that nod towards the current state of affairs for black communities in the US: “all we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk”, whilst bringing up the spectre of slavery with the line “relegated to savages bound by the way of the deceivers”. This is D’Angelo flexing a maturer lyrical muscle – ‘Left & Right’ it definitely isn’t.

But before we start thinking this is a po-faced protest album, or state of the nation address, it’s the Funk at play that lifts this album out of the obvious pitfalls of music + politics = cringe. ‘Sugah Daddy’ could be the most outwardly ‘Voodoo’-era track on offer; a perfect example of the intricately stripped Funk that ?uestlove does so well, with searing horn work anchored around solid piano chords and lightly tripping drums that make a foundation for tale of a “lioness” who might just pick you to “be the one she chooses to star in her meaningless romance”. A revised version of ‘Really Love’ starts with deep and delicate strings before slowly bumping it’s way into Spanish speech samples and guitar work that makes a warm bed for us to relax in as we see just how much of that voice D’Angelo has retained – being all of it.

‘Back To The Future (Part 1)’ sees bubbling bass and snare-less drum hits create a home-grown Funk banger spiked by a five note string/horn refrain that wraps it’s way around the listener whilst D’Angelo extols his worries of age, health, and a yearning to “go back” – to a past relationship? To childhood? To the musical heritage of his past? Who knows, but it’s a quiet neck snapper of an anthem in it’s own right.

‘Till It’s Done (Tutu)’ is warmer than freshly melted butter in the mouth, from its aerial intro, through the floating chorus of pitched up vocal warp-ery, to the jammed-out outro that ends all too soon. Thick with a creeping balminess that leaves you wanting more, it’s a reminder that the best way to hear this music would be live, where you’d hope that outro might be pushed out into a whole new dimension. Meanwhile ‘Prayer’ comes through with a scat-like deconstruction of the Lord’s Prayer over the top of haunting bell tolls, skulking synth work and sluggish drums from Gadson. A pure smoked-out jam that sees the players pull together an awkwardly perfect Funk roll for guitar improvisation and vocal exercising from the man himself.

Elsewhere ‘Betray My Heart’ picks up where ‘Chicken Grease’ and ‘Spanish Joint’ left off, with undeniably jazzy guitar licks settling into looping rhythms fronted by well worn Soul motifs that involve being true to one’s own heart, whilst ‘The Door’ is D’Angelo’s take on country music straight from the southern states, complete with whistling and slide guitar – a wildcard perhaps, yet instilled with just the slightest amount of B-Boy swagger to make it work.

The overriding joys laced throughout Black Messiah are the faint production touches that show the subtlety at work amongst the players, whether it’s the thickly treated horn work, flourishes of backwards guitar and cymbals that you catch every now and then or the typically pitched up (and down) layering of D’Angelo’s voice that create  spikes of pure wall-of-sound vocal power. The maturity to know when to end things, leaving your audience wanting more, is exemplified in the final two tracks as a reprise of ‘Back To The Future’ catches the band just steadily playing the fuck out, dropping in hints of ‘Left & Right’s anthemic guitar hook one minute, or boiling the vocals down to a sex-laden 1940’s baritone the next. As for closer ‘Another Life’, it seems the band are restraining themselves just long enough before heading skywards in a looping choral structure that frees up D’Angelo to try out his voice any which way he seems fit.

So in truth, has D’Angelo become either of the artists he threatened to be in the late nineties and early noughties? The sex symbol status will always remain of course, but it’s likely that it’ll be more to do with the pure sensuality of much of ‘Black Messiah’ rather than a half-naked video from over a decade ago. He’s certainly a worthy successor to the twentieth century’s soul greats, and unlike some of his Neo-Soul peers his voice remains as keen as ever, stretching from light to dark with apparent ease. Yet it’s the feeling of alchemy created via music that has been trialled, experimented with and melted down into a warmly coherent yet deeply complex whole, greased by a loosened collective of players who’ve spent years at the top of their game, that really raises ‘Black Messiah’ to its lofty heights. Whether the album will sit amongst work from Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye in taking up further significance in the wake of America’s tragic race problems remains to be seen, but Black Messiah is without doubt a classic Soul album of the like that hasn’t been seen since the turn of the century. Despite everything, should we have expected anything less?

‘Black Messiah’is out now on RCA. You can buy it here.

Louis Cook 

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