The 2010s saw a number of high profile album releases from artists who don’t release albums very often. I suppose the hardest thing for an artist who’s been out of the spotlight for a while to do is retain their relevance. This can be a tricky (if not impossible) maneuver, considering tastes change at such a rapid pace and don’t seem to be changing any less rapidly these days. So it seems to be the best route a long-gestating album can take is not trying to sound anything like contemporary pop music or even like the music an artist has previously released. It worked like gangbusters for Fiona Apple’s percussive-piano pop masterpiece The Idler Wheel, and it also worked for D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, an album that was nearly 15 years in the making.
That said, there’s no mistaking the D’Angelo on Black Messiah as anyone other than the man behind 2000’s Voodoo. That album was marked by its… I don’t know… stankiness? It’s hard to put into words exactly how that record sounds, other than that it takes old school R&B and pares it down to its barest essentials while also infusing it with plenty of rough around the edges looseness. Things are even looser on Black Messiah, where on some tracks you find yourself waiting for the song to start beneath all its various wobbly melodies, but before you know it the song has solidified into a next-level funky groove.
There’s a lot to dig through this album musically, but the vocal harmonies in particular are something else. D’Angelo and his back-up singers are singing such odd notes, but they’re very close to each other, and sung in a way that feels both very loose and very precise at the same time, much like the rest of the album. Similarly, the guitars and piano also have this hot and murky vibe to them, brimming with flavor but without letting things boil over into a complete mess. It’s the kind of album that has so many things going on in it that it makes sense that it took over a decade to record, and yet the playfulness and good vibes infused in the music keep it from ever feeling overwrought or overproduced.
That all said, I didn’t quite appreciate Black Messiah upon its release, mostly because I didn’t really understand the gravity of a long-awaited D’Angelo album. I also remember it being released near the end of the year, when I’m usually so burned out on new music that I rarely have the patience to wade through something as unusual as Black Messiah. Luckily, I went through a phase a couple years later of listening to a lot of Voodoo as well as D’Angelo’s fellow Soulquarian and Neo-soul titan, Erykah Badu. Freed from all its various expectations, Black Messiah seemed to quite clearly be an album so laid back that calling it a masterpiece was beside the point. It’s just a ragged, funky, unconventional piece of music, ripe for any time you wanna let it all hang out.