On Sunday, after a flurry of secret emails, I entered a party I'd been awaiting since 2000—D'Angelo had released his third album, Black Messiah. Spike Lee, Penn Badgley, writer-director Nelson George and ?uestlove milled around New York City's Dream Hotel rooftop bar filled with hipsters, DJs and journalists, including a few who were also present at the star's Voodoo listening 14 years ago. No one was quite sure what to expect.
On Saturday, I'd marched against police violence with 25,000 (or more) other New Yorkers during the Millions March. The next day, here was D'Angelo releasing an album emblematic of the black experience called Black Messiah. This could be heavy. Then this mysterious artist, who'd caused my mother to wonder aloud when her then-15-year-old got "into Jazz," slid back into my heart with 11 songs and such ease even I was surprised. But no, he wasn't present at the listening and few expected him to be. This is D'Angelo we're talking about, the guy who isn't so fond of interviews.
D'Angelo's soulful, church-based, funky and melodious sound is largely the same, yet he's delved deeper into fuzzy, indistinguishable and distorted lyrics—thank you to whomever thought to give party attendees lyric books—and more guitars. There are bass guitars, lead guitars, Spanish guitars—some of which harken back to "Spanish Joint" and other choice Voodoo cuts—all of which ?uestlove, who played host and the party's DJ, said D'Angelo has perfected in his time away.
The lyrics, on the other hand, were more indicative of what D'Angelo has personally endured over the last decade and a half. Thanks to being the sexiest man alive in 2001, his inguinal creases from that "Untitled" video are still burned into many brains.
But the pressure to maintain that perfect body drove him kind of nuts, as he admitted in a fantastic 2012 GQ profile. He'd have mild panic attacks before his Voodoo shows and just start doing calisthenics. After that album, he began recording Black Messiah at New York's Electric Lady Studios, traveling back and forth between the Big Apple and his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
Then... he started getting arrested. In 2002, he was picked up for a assault and disorderly conduct. In 2005 he was nabbed for drunk driving with weed and coke in the car and, five years later, for soliciting a prostitute who was an undercover cop. When his last mugshot appeared online, the Internet drew a collective sharp breath at his appearance and really began to worry about him. On "Back In The Future (Part I)," D'Angelo shares his thoughts on that period.
I been wondering if I ever can again
So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in
I hope it ain't my abdomen that you're referring to
Elsewhere on Black Messiah, there are jazzy love songs like "Betray My Heart," which is peppered with lovely horns, and "Really Love," the first single, which is probably the album's most accessible and lush track outside of "Another Life." "Sugah Daddy" bears my favorite D'Angelo line where, between full and funky horns, piano and drums, he boasts about a sexy lady that he really needs to spank, give a pacifier and then make her "pussy fart." Queefing for everyone!
The album's title begins to make sense on "1000 Deaths," opening with a black minister preaching on how Jesus was probably a black man, and the men people are protesting against are a "bunch of megalomaniac war-mongers." Lines like those made me wonder if D'Angelo had been watching the live feeds from Ferguson, Missouri, or winced at the newest black female sorority comprised of mothers whose sons have been unjustly killed by police. "The Charade" echoes Prince's light guitars and double drums from the "Raspberry Beret" era while singing what many of those marching with me on Saturday felt.
All we wanted was a chance to talk
'Stead we only got outlined in chalk
Feet have bled a million miles we've walked
Revealing at the end of the day, the charade
"Ain't That Easy" seems to be D'Angelo talking his listeners into supporting his talent as much as he's probably had to talk himself into it over the last 15 years.
I got just what you need babe
All this love you'll receive, yeah
I been waitin' so long
Gossip says this album was pretty much completed in 2008 and then D'Angelo re-recorded this or played with that in the remaining time since. While he tinkered, the musical landscape and even his own family has changed.
In a world where Beyoncé remastered the traditional album release by surprising fans with her self-titled album last December, I can't help but wonder how many other acts could even pull something like this off. D'Angelo definitely can and has, despite that we're in a drastically different phase of R&B—where Beyoncé's staccato "7/11" and Makonnen's stoner "Tuesday" sit atop Billboard's Hot R&B Songs chart. Like Outkast's 2014 concert return, there needs to be an event to draw in listeners now. Black Messiah is that moment that you want to say, I was there at midnight when D'Angelo came back.
Black Messiah is now available on iTunes or streaming at Spotify.