D’Angelo and The Vanguard Black Messiah

[RCA; 2014]

Styles: soul, messianism, jazz-funk, revolution
Others: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, comebacks

Notes toward a review of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah:

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The second coming, in Revelation, was supposed to have been foreseeable. There were to be clues arranged for the devout, so that preparations could be made.

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The Black Messiah is not D’Angelo himself — his album is not a Westian divine boast. The Black Messiah is a revolutionary spiritual impulse, more like the Holy Ghost than the Son.

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Black Messiah is an album of both-ness, an album of bringing together not necessarily opposites, but potential dyadic expressions: both smooth and biting; both catchy and inscrutable; both casual and precise; both impulse and reaction; both spiritual and political.

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D’Angelo is strange. His is an anachronistic art; even in the context of late 90s neo-soul, D’Angelo stood out not as a talented revivalist (though he was and is), but as what we (who?) love to call an auteur. His voice, his production, his sound is peerless, even (and especially) in its faith to its roots. His history, his rise to fame and sex-godhood, his objectification in spite of his art, his eventual receding from the public, is a tragic narrative that has been played out many times before and since his millennial disappearance.

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Jesus’s absence lasted only a few more years than D’Angelo’s. Both absences are not literal disappearances, in that both men still lived and worked, though relatively unseen. Jesus likely worked with wood, had daily struggles with faith and life, travelled. D’Angelo still worked on music, making some appearances. Lost years are never totally lost. They are dark and dim years, but the lost still exist, still breathe every day.

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Brown Sugar and Voodoo were snaky, golden, sweating, living, cavernous R&B. Black Messiah is like Brown Sugar, like Voodoo, but it is also charged with moment and with revolution in ways only hinted at earlier in D’Angelo’s career. Most of all, it is charged with time, but charged in such a way as to simultaneously eliminate time: Black Messiah makes its own clocks; Black Messiah was crafted painstakingly, that’s evident, but it never sounds labored over. It sounds loose, on fire, and huge, like a truly Christian sermon.

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Sam Cooke was the second coming of the Christ (or one iteration in a long series of reappearances). The age and cause of death coincidence (both murdered at 33) and the similarity in tenor of their respective spiritual ideals are evidence of a soul-level relationship between Jesus and Cooke. A connection of this kind between D’Angelo and Jesus of Nazareth is not clear at this point, but Mysteries are mysterious, yeah? D’Angelo, in the liner notes for Black Messiah, says only that some might think this is a religious album, that some songs are political, but does not further qualify anything. Is this a religious album? It’s certainly a spiritual album, an essentially messianic album. A direct mention (again in the liner notes) of the Ferguson protests and the OWS campaigns leaves no room for doubt as to the revolutionary spiritualism hiding in D’Angelo’s stacked falsettos.

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Messianism is a form of hope. The Messiah looks from his station in the always-imminent future back toward our always-present moment. (S)he sends messages, information, yes, but mostly hope, resolve, and strength. The Messiah is dynamic. This is a Black Messiah.

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Those in trouble, those crushed by systems, are the people of the Messiah. They always have been. D’Angelo released his album now, at this moment, for apparent and utterly serious reasons. Going against his scheduled return (later in 2015), D’Angelo placed his document of Black Messianism in time exactly where it is most needed — now.

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D’angelo’s music is soul against evil. Murder, racism, violence, oppression, hatred: Black Messiah is protest music, healing music, a bomb and a balm.

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What can a white guy say? I can say: listen to the Black Messiahs, listen to the revolutionary impulse, listen to black people, listen to Black Messiah.

Links: D'Angelo and The Vanguard - RCA

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