D’Angelo | A Nation Under Our Feet
The fourteen years since the 2001 release of Voodoo have been a season of unrest. In the waning afterglow of the Obama presidency, people have tired of platitudes and promises and taken to the streets. Protests have formed all over: fromWall Street, to Middle Eastern autocracies, and the American justice system. Oddly enough, while social discontent runs rampant across trending topics and marches nationwide, the conversation of social issues has gone MIA in popular music. In a piece on the curious absence of politics from pop music, Ann Powers observed how today’s music quietly operates in a vacuum, offbeat and incongruent with the political reality of now.
Many have argued that the cultural blanching of hip-hop and R&B music is partly to blame: in the encroaching success of pseudo-rapstars from the land down under and in the erasure of Black artists from Billboard charts and the Grammys. Some have spoken out, including J. Cole, newcomer Tink, and the reclusive Lauryn Hill, who all released tracks addressing the systemic violence of police brutality in America. Unfortunately, these records often don’t make the cut for Top 40 radio play or albums, settling on the outside of public consciousness. Lupe Fiasco, an outspoken rapper and political firebrand who was once kicked offstage for bashing the President at his own party, was stuck in release limbo until hacker-syndicate Anonymous strong-armed Atlantic into releasing it. In today’s pop landscape, it seems that any music striving for moral inquiry can only exist in the margins of hyperlinks and thinkpieces. But with cosmic serendipity, Black Messiah, the long-anticipated third album from D’Angelo, has arrived to speak to the soul of these troubled times.
Black Messiah is an anachronistic listen, plucked from dusty crates in a basement of memories. It sounds worn-in with a fuzz and grit serviced by its analog recording. But it also feels more present than any other music released this year. It recalls the spirit of pioneering soul artists before: James Brown, Al Green, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, but thankfully, and most importantly, D’Angelo himself, a hermit with prodigious talent who sounds, remarkably, just like he left us. But his return is one marked by a profound disenchantment with the state of the world. In “Till It’s Done (Tutu)”, questions of mortality, war and the environment are posed with elegiac abstraction and left unanswered. Racial injustice is the centerpiece of “Charade”, a pulsing groove that carries a solemn reproach for a broken system. You can hear D wandering throughout the record, both in his voice and in the guitar he spent years mastering in exile, trying to process how a nation that’s undergone such landmark change can still allow two Black men to die every week at the hands of its protectors.
If the answer is to be found in the gospel of love, D’Angelo is the unequivocal redeemer. His spiritual roots in the church are well-documented and they imbue the record with a warmth that’s increasingly rare in modern music.“Really Love”, the album’s standout single, is a dreamlike ballad that sweeps you away with the enchantment of it’s chorus. Opening with a brooding string arrangement and Spanish murmurs, it gives way to a haze of instrumentation and testaments of lasting affection that could overwhelm the loneliest heart. Another, “Betray My Heart”, is an affirmation of love to a doubtful partner that works doubly as a purpose statement for inner-truth.
Given the long wait, there’s a small irony in the rushed, low-key affair of Black Messiah’s release in the final weeks of 2014. According to reports, D’Angelo felt a new urgency for the album in the wake of the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson and the growing climate of protest. Even a recluse can see there’s anger in the air. This is a record that bears the scars and bruises of the American psyche and courts an important self-examination. Will Black Messiah redirect the course of pop music and invite a new chapter? Let us pray.