The master of in-your-face funk (Virgin UMe)

Review: D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’

Something You Can Feel

By Chinwe Oniah

(RCA Records)

Fourteen years after leaving the spotlight created by his groundbreaking album “Voodoo,” D’Angelo is back with “Black Messiah.” At first listen, the new offering sounds like dirty layers of music just piled on top of one another. But a closer listen breaks apart those layers and reveals lyrics that speak to our times. If we’re being honest, I think D’Angelo could have smacked us in the face harder.

That said, the album’s overall vibe is in-your-face funk. With four- and five-part harmonies that blend and bend the lyrics into doo-wop sounds of the ’50s and the ’60s, it’s hard to understand what he’s saying most of the time. In fact, I had to refer to Metro Lyrics for some of the words. But you can still understand the feelings that he is trying to transmit.

Some tracks are just devastatingly beautiful. “Really Love” starts off with a woman speaking in soft French accompanied by orchestral strings and then a sensual Spanish guitar. Lyrics like “When you touch me there/When you make me tingle/When our nectars mingle” harken to the carnal energy of “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” from the “Voodoo” album.

“Back to the Future” gives you something else you can feel. Every adult will recognize the sense that “I just want to go back, baby/Back to the way it was.” There’s not much instrumentation save for a keyboard, drums, some horns and a guitar. The rising melody makes you want to bop your shoulders up and down. He even pokes a little fun at himself, referring to speculation about his mental and physical state: “So if you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/ I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to.”

More of the unadulterated funk comes in during “Betray My Heart,” but it comes in soft as a lullaby. D’Angelo uses the same four-count of notes, but within that small space he gives us a variety of sounds and his clearest voice. “I will never betray my heart,” he tells his lover. No matter the circumstances, “Through the storm, through the rain/I’ll come running to ease your pain.”

You can’t deny the emotions. But throughout the album, I was waiting for D’Angelo to let loose and go bat crazy. All the tracks, undoubtedly great, didn’t reach the heights of music that I know he can reach. His voice was buried underneath the impressive instrumentation, and it never had a moment when it was isolated and layered in that great way we loved in “Voodoo.”

All the same, “Black Messiah” is a triumphant return, and hopefully we’ll see more of this from D’Angelo in the near future.