D’Angelo and The Vanguard – Black Messiah

Michael Holcomb

Sophomore, Economics and Mathematics major

Flying in the face of anyone who wrote a year-end list in 2014, D’Angelo released his long-awaited Black Messiah project in mid-December, just after most year-in-review pieces were published. I don’t usually think of an album as a “project,” but this is as close as it gets: fourteen years in the making, it enlists the help of his band The Vanguard and celebrated artists such as Q-Tip and ?uestlove. Hailed early in his career as the latest in R&B royalty, D’Angelo all but fell off the map in the 2000s after struggling with his emerging superstardom and life in the public eye. However, blips of activity and a short European tour in 2012 hinted at his potential comeback—and what a comeback it is.

With such an aura surrounding it, how does one even begin to approach this album? Like any great work of art, each new angle reveals a unique and compelling narrative, not the least of which is developed as a commentary on racial politics. Reports indicate that the album’s release was rushed against the backdrop of recent turmoil in the U.S. Certainly politics play a role, notably in the song “1000 Deaths,” which exudes a militant urgency after a stirring spoken-word intro that hints at the title’s origins. D’Angelo explains that “Black Messiah” does not refer to himself or even religion: “It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them… [It] is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.” This sentiment is echoed in the album art, which depicts a crowd of hands raised in solidarity.

Though this may well be racial or political solidarity, it can be interpreted just as earnestly as musical solidarity. Thus, for me, the album is not purely political—for that you can read any think piece in any newspaper anywhere. More than that, it’s remarkable music. D’Angelo conveys an easy confidence, and his infectious approach to R&B makes everyone else
seem like they’re trying too hard and still missing the point. Floating seamlessly from soul to funk to jazz and even country and Spanish-style guitar, D’Angelo and his band never miss a beat. As a result, the album sounds like a melting pot of all the musical ideas of a genius and his talented friends who waited a decade to share them. Truthfully, it would not be an overstatement to call D’Angelo one of the geniuses of our time. His voice recalls Marvin Gaye or Al Green, but
he is in no way stale or derivative. Much of the music seems to be a departure even from his own earlier, more laid-back work. “Ain’t That Easy,” the album opener, melds funky guitars with a slow-burning R&B groove as D’Angelo and company deliver powerful, harmonically rich vocals. It’s impossible (or at least unnatural) to listen to this album without moving or grooving
in some way, and after all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Overall, the album feels at once timelessly classic and pressingly relevant. It borrows from an abundant legacy of African-American music but avoids any cumbersome preoccupation with the past. Black Messiah could just as easily belong to twenty years ago or twenty years from now, and, with any luck, people will still be talking about it for a long time after that.

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