Why D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ Is The Best Album You’ve Never Heard

“So if there’s things in the world you want to change, you first have to make those changes within yourself. I hate to sound like a Hallmark card, or like “Man in the Mirror,” but that really is the truth.”

– D’Angelo

It’s 2000. 

You’ve just released your second album to unbelievably enormous success. You’ve become a worldwide revelation, given the status of ‘sex symbol’, and have record executives lining up your next release. But it’s not you. You’re uncomfortable, and unhappy. Sadly, you slip into a long and slow decay of depression, alcoholism and loneliness. You pull away and retreat to normal life in Richmond, Virginia – and disappear. Over the next few years you’re only seen in public on occasions, guesting on tracks from close friends, and having public falling outs with close friends. New music is coming, but it’s been a struggle. 

Slowly but surely, the writing comes back. You’re rebuilding friendships, you’re piecing together the broken bits of your life. There’s a new found spirituality, a renewed sense of purpose. The music starts to flow, and inch by inch you get closer to stepping back into the public eye…

In 2014 when D’Angelo finally returns to the limelight, he brings with him a collection of songs which deserves to sit alongside some of the all-time great records. It’s a beautiful blend of jazz, soul, hip-hop, gospel, funk and rock. From start to finish it’s a joy to listen to, constantly blurring the lines between American, African and Spanish influences. The grooves are sublime. The guitar work mesmerising. The melodies unforgettable. ‘Black Messiah’ is truly a masterpiece.

I have to admit, I had never heard of D’Angelo before this release, and it was only by pure luck that I came across this album. When I did, I was confused. I wasn’t sure what I was listening to. It felt good, but I didn’t understand it all, I couldn’t decipher all the complexities. The multi-layered vocals, the harmonised guitar melodies, the break-beat style drumming. It was a lot to take in, but I was hooked. I didn’t understand why, but I found myself constantly returning to listen, to repeat ‘that part’ from ‘that song’ which wouldn’t leave my head. Listen after listen, my love for the album grew. 

Recently I came back to the album, revisiting it after a few years away and it hit me just as hard as it did back then. It’s as addictive as it is mesmerising. So much talent, so much class and so much style. Perfect.

An opener like ‘Ain’t That Easy’ is a classic example, and has all the hallmarks of what makes this album so good. It’s catchy, it has groove and it showcases that multi-layer vocal style mentioned previously. A very funky jazz-infused electric guitar part that bolsters the verses highlights an artist with an extremely matured sense of harmony, and it blows my mind that D’Angelo can make such dissonant chord inversions sound so accessible. 

Then you’ve got a single like ‘Really Love’ (a personal favourite) – the complete opposite of ‘Ain’t That Easy’. A flamenco-inspired acoustic number with an absolutely gorgeous guitar hook that you will never forget. Coupled with D’Angelo’s smooth as butter falsetto vocals and a dash of strings, this is just magic. It’s songs like this one that make me wonder how artists can make such complexities sound so simple. Truly inspiring.

When you’re backed by a rhythm section boasting the likes of Pino Palladino and Questlove, it’s easy to understand why you finish the album feeling like your toe has been tapping the entire time. The groove throughout the entire album (even on the slower numbers) is just infectious. It feels like hip-hop, but submitting to that conclusion wouldn’t be doing the complexities and grooves enough justice. Songs like ‘Back to The Future (Part 1)’, ‘The Door’ and ‘The Charade’ feel more like funk or jazz when you’re listening to them. Questlove has such a great rhythmic sensibility, he never overstates his parts and plays exactly what is needed. ‘Sugah Daddy’ is an immediate highlight, and showcase why the rhythm section plays such an important role across the album. With such a commanding piano hook, it would have been easy for the rhythm to get lost behind the melody. Yet it’s the rhythm that ends up being the driving force behind the song, and it’s done brilliantly. 

If I were to give this album a trophy, it’d be rested on a mantlepiece in my pool room right next to the trophy given to Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’. When you put down on paper the nuances of each album, there would be a lot of similarities. Both albums defy genre. Both have such deep intricacies that become more evident with every listen. D’Angelo’s social commentaries littered throughout is the only stark difference that comes to mind, whereas Buckley preferred to keep things close to the chest. Nevertheless, I personally consider these two albums to be amongst the most forward-thinking and important albums of my lifetime. 

The harmonious sophistication on this album is just spell-bounding. It’s so rare to hear a fulfilling record such as this.

‘Black Messiah’ deserves a listen. Take 56 minutes out of your day, put aside your pre-dispositions, relax and enjoy. Below is ‘Really Love’ to wet your beaks.

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