Put on the new D’Angelo album and you’ll discover fifty-six minutes of music completely hidden behind a veil of static. Uh-oh, is that sliding noise a problem with the speakers? No, it’s just part of the song. In the fourteen years it took him to record Black Messiah, he does not seem to have discovered the crispness of modern recording technology. This music has holes all over it, spots where you can’t quite hear what’s going on, places where too much is happening at once, places that sound totally empty, fragile moments where everything seems to come together and tentatively lock into place. It feels as if you’re hearing it from another room, like you’re lying in bed late at night while it floats in from the street, readily drifting in and out.
D’Angelo’s music has always had a blurred, hazy quality to it, as if recreating the erratic/vulnerable singing and relaxed general atmosphere of the best soul music while somehow fading out of focus, its pleasures less the strong beats and catchy melodies of crafted pop and more the unpredictable instrumental bursts, tricky rhythmic interaction, and hissing sound effects of a jazz pastiche. But listen to Black Messiah four or five times and it’ll reveal itself as some sort of insanely intricate studio masterwork, making a deliberate sonic statement with each alternately sharp and fuzzy texture. Once you hear past the distortion, every detail signifies — every chunk of crunchy riff, every wavy flutter of horn, every hook gradually emerging from a jungle of bass and darkness and hot oil. There’s a positive thrill to the album’s apparent lack of definition — it escapes the soulless precision of so much clearer, cleaner music, instead going for a rougher, richer, spontaneous feel, at times becoming a delicate, exquisite comfort net, elsewhere achieving a strong, muscular harshness that packs immense musical force.
Since it took so long for the album to come out, hence making it seem somehow removed from the rest of the D’Angelo discography, Black Messiah has been compared more frequently to Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 touchstone There’s A Riot Goin’ On than to his own music. But play it next to Brown Sugar, his 1995 debut, and Voodoo, his difficult, ambitious 2000 follow-up, and the three albums fall into a clear progression. Concerned with neither the new jack swing popular at the time nor the rap usages he has erroneously been credited with, Brown Sugar opts for a rich, buttery, uninterrupted groove whose slow-burning, organ-drenched motion recalled in particular various ‘70s ideas about how to record soul music and its instrumental sound. His persona was Love Man, the concept retro-soul. Voodoo stretched and hardened Brown Sugar’s sonic template, filtering into the mix dark atmospheric undertones, more muscular bass, and electronic trip-hop keyboards, the latter exemplified by the fluttering, descending faucet drips eerily echoing throughout “Devil’s Pie.” It contained its fair share of romantic declarations and erotic celebrations, but with a scary, ominous edge that coincided with an increased political awareness. Fourteen years later, after numerous label delays, personal crises, and tabloid misadventures, he takes off from there — the loverboy is gone, replaced by a driven, nervous man whose music remains identifiable as neosoul but has shifted modes from song to soundscape. Although you can still hear his voice, an innocent, heavenly tenor veering into a lower, sexier growl, the lyrics have become impossible to figure out, and each track makes itself felt as a mesh of weird, fascinating noises rather than a coherent articulation of thoughts and feelings. Everything he has to say he says through the construction of a seductive, inviting musical environment.
What an environment it is, and what a band. Celebrity bassist Pino Palladino anchors the music with tough, violent, staccato notes, Roots drummer Questlove keeps the beat flowing with a deceptively simple four-four, and the horns and guitar often lock in sync with each other. From the buzzy guitar on “Ain’t That Easy” to the ethereal, jazzlike piano on “Another Life,” each song is keyed to a specific, hummable, identifiable riff, a riff that the band then distorts, clouds over, greases up, and hides behind a riot of dizzy sonic play. The glistening guitars on “Prayer” and “Betray My Heart” wouldn’t have as much impact if they weren’t so jagged and hard to hear, nor would the rhythmic figure on “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” soar into the air so magically if the other musicians weren’t circling it, ripping at it, champing at the bit. The swinging funk at the album’s core is warm and relaxing, restorative and therapeutic in its way, but around it lie effects so disorienting it takes forever to absorb all the obtrusive textural filters, glaring interruptions and maddening changes in instrumental tone. These lend the funk an edge, a jumpy, restless energy, thus thickening and darkening the mix considerably. This is music that demands to be played out loud, not through headphones but in an open space — its complex musicianly interplay, blunt rhythmic force, and many vocal styles all create physicality, a concrete, tangible presence that is the secret to its underlying pleasure. What keeps you listening isn’t the political content, admirable though it may be; it just feels good to hear those slashes of bass, chiming sitar bloops, blossoming rolls of piano, screeching horn streams, light shades of violin, scary church bells, fierce explosions of chords. Each individual song works as a song, sure, but before the parts become clear, Black Messiah surges from the speakers as a single, unified block of sound.
The one exception is “Really Love.” Now this is a conventional song, the one such song on the album, the only one that clicks immediately. It opens with forty seconds of slow, introductory violin as a woman whispers quietly in what sounds like Spanish, before leading into a very melodramatic and very powerful acoustic-guitar figure, buoyed by the violin, and then the beat kicks in. Over soft, steady drumming and a constant up-and-down bassline, the acoustic guitar begins to moan. D’Angelo starts singing in his highest, most affectionate voice, and the song gradually builds, adding subtle layers of horn and more violin. It reaches a delicate, understated climax at the end, when he briefly switches into a lower vocal register, and then fades out smoothly. “I’m in really love with you,” he sings over and over again, ignoring word order for the sake of meter as his voice and the acoustic guitar keep articulating the same melody, back and forth, until you can’t tell which is mimicking the other. “Really Love” is a straightforward love ballad, a tender romantic confession. It’s so modestly gorgeous that listening to it might actually make you cry. For those feeling adrift, it’s an entry point into a spiky funk record whose contours you can lose yourself in.