If you read this blog regularly then you know that R&B is not necessarily my forte. Sure, like any genre it has a diverse catalog that is covered by its tagline, so to rule out any music just because of how it’s labeled is usually going to keep you away from some potentially fabulous music you’d love. And I love the early decades of R&B, it’s just the more modern incarnations that make my nuts feel funny. Anyway, the entire internet is freaking out right now about D’Angelo’s first new album in 14 years, which dropped today. So here’s my first instinctual listen and take of Black Messiah, devoid of any specific recording details and strictly focused on how I think this think sounds – track by track.
1) “Ain’t That Easy” – Sweet mercy, there is not a human alive that could deny this pocket. Laid back but gritty. Melodically, its brilliant and feels simple despite its inherent complexities. When it drops to the major key in the chorus, you completely forget about everything shitty happening on planet Earth.
2) “1000 Deaths” – Whoa, shit got weird quick and I fucking love it. It starts off with some intense samples of a preacher, and then the bass starts pummeling your gut with a throbbing pulse. It sounds like what I imagine Gil Scott-Heron in his prime teaming up with Thundercat would sound like.
3) “Charade” – Even with heavy lyrics outlining the current oppression of anybody non-white, the lack of a solid hook on this one makes it harder for me to stay absorbed. Yes, the instrumentation is phenomenal – but right now this track is a touch too heady for a Monday morning. So that says something about the power he’s reaching for here.
4) “Sugah Daddy” – Centered on a jazzy piano fill that’s the kind of sample Jurassic 5 would have sold their souls for 15 years ago, this one channels that Cab Calloway vibe without it being corny or pushed. Really cool horn lines punch through as D’Angelo hits his natural falsetto lines that no 40-year old man should be able to do without his balls in a vice. Cool tune.
5) “Really Love” – The string section introduction is beautiful, and then it gets augmented by some flamenco touches before entering yet another undeniably stellar pocket. Centered on a walking bass line and hand claps, you realize that nothing this year comes anywhere close to matching this record production-wise. This is a classic Stevie Wonder-esque love song all the way.
6) “Back To The Future (Part 1)” – So sparse and yet so overwhelmingly full at the same time – that’s basically the name of the game on the whole album but this one straight up owns that vibe. If this one doesn’t make you do that short-step shimmy, then it’s time you bought some new shoes. Again, as an overall composition this is simply incredible, and the kind of thing that as a musician myself I still have no idea what the first step in writing a song like this would be.
7) “Till It’s Done (TUTU)” – Nobody hits a snare these days like ?uestlove, and he has this way of playing that makes you feel like he’s your best friend. This tune almost feels like they just asked him to to lay down a fly beat and then built the rest of the song over it. Despite the lyrics being about the planet crumbling, D’Angelo’s vocal vamping makes this the warmest cut on the album so far.
8) “Prayer” – This is the kind of track you make love to while getting abducted by aliens, and as thus has a groove that wouldn’t have been out of place on Auqemini or any other classic Outkast album. This one really showcases D’s brilliancy in not over-crowding a killer pocket with too many unnecessary vocalizations. Just like his album outputs, he goes by the “less is more” philosophy.
9) “Betray My Heart” – Here’s another one that feels like a re-imagining of some lost cut off Songs In the Key Of Life. I’m not sure what instruments D’Angelo is playing himself here, but whoever’s playing guitar has that silky jazz touch that makes you feel ashamed to listen to while not wearing a fine tailored suit. Perfect punches from a Fender Rhodes mesh in the art of sonic love-making with the horn lines. Just straight-up fly.
10) “The Door” – Well, you got to be a really fly motherfucker to whistle on a track and have it sound as tough as it does here. This is the type of laid-back swagger that you picture a wholesome pimp embodying. You know, the dude who doesn’t beat his girls and is big into community action. It’d be hard to listen to this one on headphones while walking down the street and not get one of those sly hitches in your step.
11) “Back To The Future (Part II)” – I’m not sure why more R&B folks don’t use self-referential reprises. The beat is a little punchier than on Part 1, and perhaps even a hair deeper into the “everybody’s getting laid” category. I don’t know if I own shoes good enough to dance to this track in public to.
12) “Another Life” – If I added up my top ten smoothest moments in life, their cumulative smoothness would still pale in comparison to this cut. With a guitar tone that everyone seems to have forgotten about since The Delfonics last had a hit, this track essentially discredits everything that’s happened in the world of popular soul music over the past 30 years.
So overall… yeah, this is one of the most ridiculously fly records made since I have no clue when. It makes you realize that any praise you’ve given to Frank Ocean or any other modern soul-cat was all relative to the absence of D’Angelo. Quite simply, he has no current peers that are anywhere near being on his level. Every single Best-Of list that came out in the past month is a joke since it doesn’t include Black Messiah, and that being said – who makes their year’s best list in November anyway – (other than everybody and except for I Shit Music). You can stream the whole record right now at Spotify.