D’Angelo’s latest, and first new album since 2000’s Voodoo is not an easy album to review. A few listens in, I’m still trying to absorb it. The music is so varied and has so many dense layers. It recalls everything from Prince (well, at all times there’s some Prince influence – at times I think D’Angelo is trying to *be* Prince, or at least his idea of all Prince’s best moments) to sounds heard in The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper era or The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds/Smile era. There’s echoes of the classics that changed soul music, like Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder’s 70s epics. It’s all interwoven in a very hypnotizing blend, such that on my first Spotify listen, I knew I had to get a copy so I could really listen closer. The album is filled with daring musical twists and turns. The band even contains Prince family – Jesse Johnson, guitarist from The Time. It also contains the legendary Pino Palladino (who I know more than anything from his work with Peter Gabriel) and Questlove, drummer for The Roots. But about the vocals. This is where I’m conflicted. The vocals sound great. Layers and layers of overdubbed vocals. The only problem is that the lyrics are so mumbled. And I mean really mumbled. To the point that when I finally found the lyrics (available on D’Angelo’s website, but oddly not in the CD liner notes), I kept getting lost because I’m thinking “did he sing that part? That sounded nothing like that”. Some songs are clearer than others, but on a couple songs, I was reminded of the first time I heard Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head, and being frustrated with its fuzzed out vocals. Over repeated listens my ears got use to it and I started comprehending more and more. and eventually I loved it. But it’s frustrating. I think it’s a bit odd to discuss someone’s lyrical genius when the lyrics are indecipherable. However, this album intrigues me, and the music draws me in further on each listen.
The opener “Ain’t That Easy” is one of my favorites. It has a slinky funk style that reminds me of Prince’s “3121”. But yet not – because there’s some classic rock guitar, some deep basslines, and the vocals are almost just another instrument. But one line is clear, “You can’t leave me… ain’t that easy”. The backing vocals are something like Al Green and Funkadelic having a party in the background. This song simply sounds like nothing I’ve heard in recent times except for a bunch of different styles of classics in a blender. “1000 Deaths” takes the album into a more social territory, starting off with an impassioned speech about Jesus being a black revolutionary. This song is the hardest to decipher. This is strange because the lyrics are something that you would think D’Angelo would want to be heard. I can only describe this as close to some of Funkadelic’s more bizarre, rock-tinged tracks. “The Charade” stays in this sociopolitical vein with lyrics like “All we wanted was a chance to talk – ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk”. The music sounds like one of Prince’s Emancipation era tracks with its sitar bits, but more like a Chaos and Disorder rock track. Sort of. Everything on here is sort of. The blender in D’Angelo’s mind turns it all into something new.
Next we get to the love/sex songs. First up, “Sugah Daddy”. Musically – I love this song. It’s stripped down beats and piano funk is irresistible. But D’Angelo is almost indecipherable the whole song. He’s doing a “shoobee-do-dop-shoo-bee doo” thing with his voice so much the lyrics are lost in the shuffle. Then when you read the lyrics you almost wish you hadn’t. “I hit it so I made the pussy fart”. Well there goes getting played on the radio. Not that you’d even know he said it. But then we have a slower track, “Really Love” which is far easier to understand, and one of my favorites here. It’s some rainy day r&b with fingersnaps/claps but also has some.. oboe and bassoon? And then some little bits of strings. Some sounds that give it a classy touch. That ends side one. Even if you have the CD. Because you hear the needle being picked up, then being dropped again for side two…
Side two is far longer. “Back To The Future (Part I)” (or “Back In The Future” on the lyrics page) has a mellow but layered funk groove. Here he reminisces about life before he was talked about. He even sings “If you’re wonderin’ about the shape I’m in, I hope it ain’t my abdomen, you’re referring to”, talking about his disenchantment with becoming a sex symbol after his appearing naked and chiseled in the 2000 video “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” (well, what did you expect?), but then gaining weight and it being a big ordeal in the public eye. This and personal issues that stemmed from stardom seem to be what kept him out of the music business for a while, so it’s nice to see him back and dealing with it. There’s a spot at the end in the adlibs that you will swear Prince is on this song. If not, great impersonation! “Til It’s Done (Tutu)” follows – Tutu being a Miles Davis album made after Miles’ collaboration with Prince never saw the light of day. Yes, he’s that big of a follower. Lyrically this song is his “What’s Going On”, talking about pollution, acid rain, pointless deaths and reflection on the state of the world. “Prayer” is a very spooky sounding track, like something Prince worked on but then threw out because it was too dark sounding. He even starts out with The Lord’s Prayer (*ehem* “Controversy”?), but going deeper than that about his faith, and “You’ve got to pray all the way”.
“Betray My Heart” is the jazziest song here, and possibly my favorite. Take all the good stuff about the jazzy parts in Prince’s The Rainbow Children. On this one the falsetto is easier to understand without the lyric sheet, the layered vocals just sound classic. If this one went on as a ten minute jam I wouldn’t complain. “The Door” starts out whistling – and sounds like something from an antidepressant or Viagra commercial, but funky. I think this is a snarky kiss-off song to an ex. Maybe. The laid back acoustic-based spare track is simple and just right. However, there’s two verses on the lyric sheet that aren’t in the song (*ehem* “Computer Blue”?). Maybe the song was originally much longer. Then we get “Back To The Future (Part II)”, literally two more minutes of the song. It makes a nice reprise. Then to end the album is a panty-dropper quiet storm ballad. While, yes it recalls the vibe of some of Prince’s slow songs, it’s not *just* Prince here. This has that late rainy night vibe that just sounds like the 70s reincarnated. A nice way to end.
So, unlike many reviews, I’m not going to jump the gun and instantly call this classic simply because it’s different, or at times hard to wrap my head around. I really hate that approach. I’ve never felt that simple is bad and complex/weird is instantly genius. To me that’s just trying to seem cutting edge to everyone else. But there are some great elements to this album that are really pushing soul music forward. The return to live instrumentation, and doing it so creatively is a huge leap. There’s also things I’m not happy about. If I could understand the lyrics more clearly, I’d appreciate these songs so much more, as the lyrics are great on paper. But even while that detracts for me personally, the music here is extremely well put together. You can tell that D’Angelo and his band labored over this music for a while, getting every note right. In the end, it makes for a really interesting and intriguing soul album. In time with repeated listens, the lyrics might pop out more. But the music keeps me coming back. There’s a good chance I’ll still be listening to this at the end of 2015. Kudos to D’Angelo for being daring and adventurous, and not just giving us by-the-numbers r&b.
Pick up your copy of Black Messiah HERE:
Check out some performances and audio clips:
“Really Love” (Live on SNL):
“The Charade” (Live on SNL):
“Ain’t That Easy”:
“Betray My Heart”: