Although a month has passed since the release of D’Angelo’s new album, Black Messiah, the buzz around his unforeseen comeback isn’t dying down yet. The hype over his ‘second coming’ is warranted by his fifteen year-long vanishing act, which was shrouded in speculation and intrigue. His last album, the R&B slash neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo, has been bled dry for nearly a decade and a half whilst the long in the making follow-up became another studio myth for despondent fans.
But those patiently waiting for 14 calendar runs have been rewarded big time with this offering, which feels almost more like one, monumental piece of music than a sequence of songs; a river meandering from one after-hours jam session to the next, masking the effort and labour behind it. In ‘Sugah Daddy’, the standout track, D’Angelo reminds us in his silky smooth voice that you “can’t snatch the meat out of the lioness’ mouth/Sometimes you gotta just ease it out.”
Having been once hailed as the next Martin Gaye and dubbed ‘the R&B Jesus’ by Robert Christgau in 2000, the singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer found himself crippled by the overwhelming pressure of stardom, causing him to retreat from the spotlight completely, much to the dismay of fans pining for his chiselled torso as flaunted in the video for ‘Untitled’.
During his hiatus, D’Angelo had two stints in rehab, grappling with drink and drug addiction, some run-ins with the law and a near fatal car accident in 2005. In the meantime, America had its first black president, and a Jay-Z and Kanye West discography.
There are moments of nostalgia, a large dose felt poignantly in the lines, “I just wanna go back, baby/Back to the way it was,” as well as in the album’s analogue warmth, which sets it apart from the ultra-synthesized R&B vocals we’ve become so used to hearing. But with its political message, underlined most explicitly in ‘The Charade’s’ “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk,” and the timing of its release, following the Ferguson protests and the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ movements, it is right on cue.
D’Angelo doesn’t shy away from the reality of his intervening years, singing, “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to,” in ‘Back to the Future (Part I)’. But his effortless virtuosity and soaring, inimitable vocals, are enough to quell any slight trepidations, and sate a fifteen year long appetite.