Retrospective: D'Angelo and the Vanguard's Black Messiah

By @TrueGodImmortal

1. Ain't That Easy 
2. 1000 Deaths 
3. The Charade 
4. Sugah Daddy
5. Really Love
6. Back To The Future (Part I)
7. Till It's Done (Tutu)
8. Prayer
9. Betray My Heart
10. The Door 
11. Back To The Future (Part 2)
12. Another Life

It's been about a year plus now since the return of D'Angelo after a 15 year hiatus. After the album has settled, the tour has concluded (well at least one part of it), and the dust has cleared, we wanted to take a moment to look back at this album and see how it holds up, and if the title of a classic applies. Maybe it is still too early to give it that distinction, however I would honestly say that this album was hands down one of the best albums for 2014 (when it was released) and even if you wanted to consider it a 2015 release, it measures up to almost every other project released last year as well.

When the album's existence became known, I was shocked because I didn't foresee a comeback from D'Angelo. Now, let me state this: after so many false starts and rumored releases of an album titled "James River", I didn't expect anything to actually come from the talented singer. I figured his demons had become too much to deal with and that perhaps his voice had not been up to par. I was wrong. Completely wrong. With the release of this album, D'Angelo shocked everyone in some ways. Not because the music was so great (though it was), but because of how easy it was for him to return and captivate the audience.

Not many artists have that power, only true legends. Sade can take time off, come back, and boom. Maxwell could and has done it before. D'Angelo was now added to that list. He explained why he decided to put the album out when he did and his reasoning was understandable. He had originally intended to release it in 2015, but the state of Ferguson and the police brutality that has since become rampant and the norm inspired him to release it early. There's no telling how old some of the songs are here, as D'Angelo had been in the studio off and on for some years. Regardless, what Black Messiah seems to represent is a mixture of the black experience, love, learning, growth, and in some ways, a reality check. Hidden underneath the falsetto vocals that sometimes drown out the clarity of his words are powerful lyrics, even in the most simplest form.

From the start of this album, "Ain't That Easy" gives us a funky vibe, as D'Angelo kicks it into high gear, and as usual, the music becomes alarmingly infectious. I say alarmingly infectious because, like myself, you might find yourself singing out loud in a public place and not even realizing it because you got a bit too lost in the music. "Ain't That Easy" is somewhat remisicient of a Sly and The Family Stone record in many ways, as the funky rhythm and the strong vocals recall Sly (if he used a falsetto). After a long intro from an audio clip of what sounds like a Khalid Muhammad speech talking about the whitewashing of black minds and the world over along with a small Fred Hampton excerpt, the booming drums of "1000 Deaths" knocks along with some really funky guitar riffs. The lyrics on this song are actually a bit telling of the direction the album will continue to take.

"I can't believe I can't get over my fear/
They're gonna send me over the hill/"

The lyrics in this song suggest that D'Angelo is ready to fight the good fight against the powers that be, the beast and the devil. His strength and his fight is showcased on one of my favorite songs on the album "The Charade". Smooth, funky, and slightly jazz influenced, this song is mostly known for the infamous quote "all we wanted was a chance to talk.... instead we only got outlined in chalk", which is powerful in its own right. However, the opening verse of this song is a lyrical masterpiece that one might miss due to the falsetto and slightly slurred opening vocals that allows D'Angelo to slip in some gems

"Crawling through a systematic maze to demise/
Pain in our eyes/ 
Strain of drowning, wading through the lies/
Degradation so loud that you can't hear the sound of our cries/ All the dreamers have gone to the side of the road which we relay on/
Inundated by media, virtual mind fucks in streams/" 

The genius within that verse is something special. The song in general features the strongest lyrics on the album in many ways. Once this powerful song has completed, we go right into the original preview single "Sugah Daddy", which is another solid song, though I'm not the biggest fan of it when compared to some of the more amazing songs here. The lyrics on this one are truthfully slick, worded with enough metaphors and presented in a funky soul manner, which the whole album seems to be rooted in. As the sounds of "Sugah Daddy" close, we hear a brief Spanish intro before leading into one of the stronger songs on this album, the smooth and nearly seductive "Really Love".

D'Angelo keeps the lyrics short and simple on "Really Love", as the music is jazzy and almost soulful and allows him to harmonize to the lady of his preference over the glorious soundbed. What carries this song further to me is the marriage between the production and vocals being so flawless. The next song "Back To The Future (Part 1)" is a fun song that invokes memories of his 2nd album Voodoo in a way. The hook is simple and features D'Angelo exclaiming that he wants to go back to the way it was. Some could leave that up to interpretation for what he means, but the lyrics are straightforward on this one.

The amazing groove of "Till It's Done (Tutu)" is undeniable. The vocals and production are both completely flawless and D'Angelo is at his best here. The melody here is crisp, the drums are perfection, and the breakdown at the end of the song is without a doubt one of the best moments on this amazing album. Beneath the beautiful sound however, D'Angelo slips in some lyrical gems yet again.

"Carbon pollution is heating up the air/
Do we really know? Do we even care?/
Acid rain drips on our trees and in our hair/
Are you there?/
Clock ticking backwards on things we already built/
Sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed/
Question ain't do we have the resources to rebuild/
It's do we have the will/"

This song leads into the knocking rhythm of "Prayer", which features some soul stirring melodies and beautiful drums (the clap drums are essentially a nice touch, as they add a vibe of church in some ways to it). The funk infused in the music here adds another element to it as well, which honestly keeps up the theme of the album and cohesion of it. It is no coincidence that "Prayer" follows the darker lyrics of "Till It's Done". He was setting his scene and speaking about the grim reality we could face, then praying for redemption and the best in the following song. It's a beautiful set up in many ways.

The most jazz inspired song on the album follows next, as "Betray My Heart" has the true rhythm of a nice jazz record. This song puts me in a lounge mentally where the wine flows freely and the vibe is relaxed. The guitar riffs are so smooth and the drums are quite minimal in a way here, but it works perfectly. Even the smooth horn led ending and breakdown are flawless here, and as the song evolves, the sound becomes more and more mature, which is rare. It starts as your simple jazz record, evolves to a short breakdown, and by the end, it is a full on jazzmatazz, and it closes out by going back to the original simple sound. This song might be the most underrated one on the album.

The blues like vibe of "The Door" was honestly unexpected, as it features more of the old folksy blues rhythm than the jazzy blues sound. This song still works on all levels, and the groove to it is undeniable. One thing that remains slept on about D'Angelo is how infectious his music is, even when some of his lyrics seem inaudible, it always inspires you to sing along and enjoy. Following this song, there is the second edition of "Back To The Future", which honestly doesn't serve a true purpose in regards to being a standalone track, but it is the perfect segue to the final song and the best song on the album.

Now, when this album first came out, I played "Another Life" religiously. There was the first day that I heard this album when it released, and played it. I remember listening to every song and enjoying them all a lot. However, when I got to the final track, I stopped and just listened in awe of what I heard. There's not many tracks these days that leave me in awe of how great they are, but this one was it. I played this song about 75 times in the first week I had the album, probably another 100 times over the next month. The song is pure perfection and ranks already on my top 5 D'Angelo songs, which says a lot about the quality of this song. I believe that at the time I related to the lyrics so much at the time, that the song hit me so hard. I still relate to it now as well, but the lyrics spoke to me heavily during this period:

"How does one attempt to be/
The kind of friend that you would wanna keep/ 
I just want to say to thee/
Even though, it might be hard to believe/
The candy coated thoughts that drift through my sleep/
Lets me know, it's you that holds the key/
I got a craving for confection so sweet/ 
For the taste of when our lips first meet/" 

That was the opening verse of this song and the lyrics were extremely dope if you had someone that they related to in your life. Some music just hits you and there's nothing that could hit you stronger than a chorus that goes "in another life, I bet you were my girl", especially if you've been through a "right person, wrong time" situation, or if you meet someone who gives you the type of vibes that you know you could likely never duplicate. It happens. This song evolves however into the 2nd verse, where it seems the fantasy grows into a more descriptive realm:

"I just want to take you with me/ To the secret rooms in the mansion of my mind/
Shower you with all you that you need/
Take my hand, I swear I'll take my time/
I'm not surprised to find that angels compete/
For the chance to lay down at your feet/
I'm gonna touch in all the places that please/
Pull you close, I wanna feel you breathe/"

With those powerful lyrics, D'Angelo attempts to close out the album just right with this song and he does just that. "Another Life" is one of the best songs I've heard in quite some time, probably one of the best songs I've heard so far this decade, if not THE best. It features some of the best production on the album, some of the best lyrics, the most infectious rhythm, it features everything you would want from a song that is ending an album. It is perfection in that manner. The perfect way to close out his comeback album, as it leaves the story open for a return or could be the perfect final chapter in his music career.

So how does Black Messiah hold up now? I would say this album is yet another classic in the D'Angelo catalog, and to me personally, it is. What makes it a classic to me is the impact that the music has on me personally, the flawless sound, the risks taken in some way in production, how strong the lyrics are, and what the album represents. No, this album isn't a multi platinum chart topper, and he didn't have songs playing in the club or a huge single, but there lies the beauty of it. At a time when some people were starting to claim that albums were becoming obsolete (I read all those stupid articles and Tweets), D'Angelo came back and blessed the world with something powerful that should stand the test of time. Music with longevity in a microwave/fast food culture. That, my friends, is something necessary.



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