In Spite Of The Wait, New D’Angelo Sounds Just Like Old D’Angelo

December 16, 2014  |  

Earlier this year, D’Angelo sat on a stage at the Brooklyn Museum, alongside Roots drummer Questlove, and offered this sentiment about how he feels about being pigeonholed into neo soul:

“I don’t want to disassociate, and I respect it for what it is, but any time you put a name on something, you put it in a box.

I never claimed I do neo soul. When I first came out, I said, I do black music.”

Typical men and their commitment issues. Listen, he may not like to claim neo soul, but there is no denying that he and neo-soul have been “kicking it” for a while…

It has been 14 years since the last time D’Angelo released an album. Musically, the landscape has changed and evolved significantly. Even familiar black genres like soul, R&B and even hip-hop have undergone a sort of a metamorphosis into more of a pop terrain. And yet, the entire sound on D’Angelo’s long-awaited (that is not an overstatement) third album, Black Messiah, is very much like what we expect from D’Angelo: soulful, raw and definitely old school.

Sure, you can tell that the Southern crooner is playing with some new sounds on the album. On the ironically powerful track “Charade,” he delivers a powerful political message (in particular, he says: All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk) that betrays the song’s upbeat melody. The album also makes some unusual and disjointed turns, in particular going from the pro-black consciousness rallying of “1000 Deaths,” which is introduced by the poignant words of Malcolm X, to getting a little sexy and exotic on “Really Love.”

But the riffs, the runs, the live instruments (and more specifically, the blues guitar) and let us not forget, the signature melancholic mumbling, well, that’s all vintage D’Angelo.

And honestly, Black Messiah feels very much like an extension of the singer’s sophomore album, Voodoo. That album was mostly lauded by critics and had a fair amount of commercial success, debuting No.1 on the Billboard U.S. charts. Many listeners of Voodoo, which had significant commercial success and was ultimately lauded by critics, felt that it was innovative. And even Questlove, who worked on the project, christened it as “a new direction for soul in 2000.”

Yet in spite of its praises for pushing music forward, Voodoo would carry lots of musical elements from black music’s past, including funk, jazz, R&B, and yes, even soul. I’m talking Robinson. I’m talking The Family Stone. I’m talking Gaye. And I’m even talking Prince too. As noted by this archived Rolling Stone review of the album:

The twenty-year-old who made Brown Sugar five years ago was a guy bent on including the past in the present, without opening a retro-R&B museum. So, conceptually, Voodoo is a nice move, a reminder that D’Angelo never wanted to re-create some sort of soul heaven; it turns out he’s just a gifted guy crazy about hip-hop and Marvin Gaye.

And D’Angelo would acknowledge that appreciation for different forms of black music in this 2000 interview with Ebony magazine: “I am trying to make connections between all the music that traces itself back to the blues and the gospel and everything.”

There is no denying that such a fusion of all black music can be heard very prominently throughout Black Messiah. I can hear Prince on “Ain’t That Easy.” I can hear The Family Stone’s punchy funk on “Back to The Future (Part I).” And I can hear Marvin Gaye’s wonderment with everything happening in the world in “Till It’s Done (Tutu).” Even with its political overtones, many of the songs from the album sound like they could have easily fit within Voodoo‘s tracklist without missing a beat. “Spanish Joint” could have flown nicely into “Really Love.” “Another Life” compliments “Send It On” exceptionally. And “Sugah Daddy” could be mixed in with “Chicken Grease” without missing too many beats.

A few hours before his album dropped, D’Angelo explained the biblically-inspired title of the album. In short, he said it was a statement on uprisings, which have been happening around the world from Ferguson to Egypt, and in particular, it’s about the many voices that have come out of those struggles. More specifically, he added that the title was “a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”

But from conjuring spells on Voodoo to finding God within us on Black Messiah, it is clear that D’Angelo is not done with whatever musical pilgrimage he started 14 years ago. It makes one wonder why he, as well as other neo-soul artists, go through so much to untie themselves from a genre that they basically created? Clearly D’Angelo has a sound, and no matter how hard he tries to produce himself out of that, it keeps showing up. The sooner he can accept his unique voice and position in music, the less likely we the fans will have to wait an additional 14 years for another album.

And let’s be real: When we’re talking about the new sound of today, it’s centered around digital manipulations, heavy bass and stuff that sounds like a bunch of lasers. Whether he’d like to admit it or not, Black Messiah is very regressive and very much, for the lack of a better word, neo-soul. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The old sh*t was the bomb (wait, do we still use that word?), and with this new album, D’Angelo does not disappoint.

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