D’Angelo and the Vanguard
Well all knew that the new D’Angelo album was going to drop soon. He returned to the stage in 2012 and had been playing some new jams here and there live, all immediately arresting for any of the people lucky to catch them. The circumstances for the release of Black Messiah, which is credited to D and his backing band, the Vanguard, is a refreshing tale of the power of an artist to beat back the suits in favor of artistic integrity: while completed, but not yet announced, D’Angelo rushed the release of the record as a response to recent social upheaval connected to America’s propensity to not press charges against killer cops, particularly the ones that kill unarmed black men. While there are no direct references to Ferguson, Staten Island, or Cleveland, the ghosts of the slain loom heavy in these grooves. “Prayer” is hooked with a funeral bell, and “The Charade” and “1000 Deaths” directly address the misery of the American black experience.
In an age where the slightest discrepancy will delay an album for half a year, this came out wherein people were no just hearing Black Messiah within 24 hours of its announcement, you could straight-up buy it, not just online, but in the store. How employees of CD retailers and distributors across the country kept this quiet, is beyond me, but is a refreshing throwback to when Prince dropped Around the World In a Day in stores with no announcement.
Speaking of Prince – yeah, this record definitely has a bit of him in here. “The Charade” in particular, with its melodic sitar line and smooth vocal and bass interplay, sounds like it could have come from the aforementioned record, which was a stepping stone between the majesty of Purple Rain and the grit of Sign O’ the Times. “Sugah Daddy” likewise, recalls the purple one’s fun side and shows off D’s emotive voice – with multiple vocal layers, you can clearly visualize his twisting and contorting face as he delivers the lines. The album is aggressive like with the excellent builder “1000 Deaths,” but also offers up deliciously smooth neo-soul like on the sweet, string-laden “Really Love.”
The prize gem of the bunch though lay at the closing gate with the fluttering “Another Life,” sounding like a warm, breezy day in the city. The song is instant classic status, sounding as if cut straight from Songs in the Key of Life. The song just billows out with a warmth only Frank Ocean has been able to capture in recent years. That sound is an important component to the record – the whole thing was recorded on two-inch tape, and it shows. The timbre is vintage and beautiful – completely free of any trends or time-tethered style. This is music that could be made at any period. Timelessness is an overstatement.
Following in the tradition of Beyoncé’s surprise self-titled dark pop explosion last year, D’Angelo continues with what we can all hope will be a yearly tradition of late game gems. Black Messiah, much like that record, is an album not concerned with commercial strategy. It’s a record that is aware of its own merits, and is fully confident that it will be loved, year-end lists be damned.