A Little Help From His Friends: The Making of D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah”
Thankfully, some key confidantes cared more about the music than the money
“Art is never finished. Only abandoned.” ~Leonardo da Vinci
Picture the Mona Lisa. One of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famed works, regarded as a masterpiece by art aficionados and pedestrian art fans globally, the painting sits in the Louvre, in Paris. Many people know that the woman in the painting was Lisa del Giocondo, a woman whose husband commissioned da Vinci to paint a portrait of her in the early 1500’s. But not many know another crucial detail about the Mona Lisa: It is incomplete.
There’s a pencil-thin line stretching across her head, marking da Vinci’s muddled transition from sketch to painting—either that or she’s wearing a hair net to serve us all lunch. There are other details that experts have identified as clear indicators that the job was unfinished, including a hodgepodge background, inconsistent shading along Mona Lisa’s dress, along with a lack of defining details on her face. Da Vinci held onto this portrait for quite a while. Historians speculated that he was too attached to it to let it go. He continued work on it, but never felt it was perfect. da Vinci, a known procrastinator, didn’t finish a number of his works. Some say he grew obsessed with the minutiae to his own creative detriment, while others suggested his last two fingers on his right hand were paralyzed (a condition known as Dupuythen’s Syndrome), preventing him from painting.
Over the last 14 years, D’Angelo — like da Vinci — had been struggling to complete his masterwork: a third album, a follow up to his 1996 debut, Brown Sugar, and 2000’s Voodoo. Many songs were generated, and many of them jettisoned. Occasionally, he leaked them. Release dates were set, then missed. The new album was retitled three times and went through at least three labels—Virgin, J, and RCA. When it finally emerged as Black Messiah on December 15, 2014, D’Angelo was greeted with praise, not only for releasing his project, but for developing a work that could speak to this exact moment in history with bold social commentary. Black Messiah sold 117,000 in its first week, outpacing the expectations of many in the industry. Critics hailed the album, and a music professor crowed about its intricate layers that surface anew with every listen. But, like the Mona Lisa, Black Messiah is incomplete.
The reason? D’Angelo’s current label, RCA, gave him a deadline (a candid conversation with an RCA employee confirmed this). After that deadline, whatever masters had been created on the label’s dime would be released. Given that prospect, D’Angelo—assisted by a team of managers, mentors, musicians, marketers and confidantes—scurried to sculpt the album’s final shape. Sources close to D’Angelo’s camp say that the rush was the reason why the artist didn’t show up to his own album release party in New York City. And while D’Angelo certainly sought to take advantage of some of his songs’ resonance with current events, it’s also true that he felt he had more to say.
It’s the aspect of D’Angelo’s personality that best illuminates the gap between his albums and the form that Black Messiah finally took. Not D’Angelo, the addict—in and out of rehab for a drinking problem; arrested for a DUI and drug possession in 2005; “high on cocaine and drunk off his ass,” as Amy Wallace said in her 2012 GQ article, while he flipped his Hummer three times that same year. Not D’Angelo, the emotional basket case—deeply embarrassed and disappointed that his Voodoo-era physique eclipsed his music as the main attraction at his shows. Rather, it’s D’Angelo, the perfectionist, that ultimately ruled the course of events, that made Black Messiah a great album despite its creator’s misgivings. Just ask his friends.
Jocelyn Cooper was the entrepreneur who, back in 1993, gave a young songwriter named Michael D’Angelo Archer his first publishing deal, with her company, Midnight Music. In the years thereafter, Cooper rose to become an important executive in the music business, and perhaps one of the most powerful women in it, having sealed the deal between Universal Records and Cash Money, a partnership that governs the sound of American music to this day. Cooper herself has since switched musical gears, co-founding Afropunk in 2004 with Matthew Morgan—an industry veteran who released a pivotal documentary of the same title in 2003—and fostering a new generation of “alternative” Black musicians. But she’s still D’Angelo’s publisher. And, of anyone on his team, she’s known him the longest.
“When I met him he could virtually pick up any instrument and figure out how to play it. But to master it takes time,” Cooper says. And among the many items on D’Angelo’s 14-year-long “to-do” list, mastering the guitar was a priority. It was one of the things that D’Angelo wanted to do before recording and releasing his third album.
“That was a very strong desire for him,” Cooper continues, “To be great at playing the guitar. I don’t know if he will ever feel like he’s as great as I’m sure that he is, because he’s always surrounding himself with masters like Jesse Johnson. But that’s one of the things that he was very focused on during this period of time.” D’Angelo’s newfound guitar skills are omnipresent on Black Messiah.
Cooper wore an additional hat working on Black Messiah, as Afropunk became responsible for creating the marketing materials for the project under a tight turnaround. They created a lyric book following the album’s release, a Godsend given D’Angelo’s notoriously mumbled vocals. Above all, Cooper remained an ear for D’Angelo as the two spoke throughout his hiatus while he pieced the project together.
“I didn’t expect [Black Messiah] to drop this year,” Cooper admits. “I actually thought it would come in 2015. But talking to D’Angelo during that entire time, he really, really felt strongly about releasing it this year with what was happening in the world.”
That didn’t stop D from wanting it to be precise. “He was absolutely perfecting it,” she says. “Why did it take 14 years? I think he was living his life and being inspired by the world and music, finding something that he wanted to say. I know that he was working and writing during that time… Everybody has a different cycle in terms of how they release music. There are artists that release records every year, and good for them. Everyone doesn’t have to be held to participate in that same cycle.” Cooper cites Sade’s 10-year breaks in between releases as an example.
Cooper says she’s “overjoyed” that Black Messiah has finally arrived and hopes this is an extended stay on D’s part, even to pop in and out with one song at a time from here on out, though she grows more and more impressed with Black Messiah as she plays it.
“On ‘Sugah Daddy’ there’s a hambone. Like, who does that?” Cooper says with delight. “Who puts that into records? All of his Gospel traditions, all of that are all in this record, and it just comes together in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever heard any musician in modern time, do it. He’s been consistent since I met him at 17, a masterful musician and a student of music history.”
Alan Leeds is a legend in his own right. He quit college to work with James Brown, and by his early 20s he was Brown’s tour manager, publicist, and anything else the Godfather of Soul needed him to do. Leeds went on to do the same for Prince, in 1989 becoming the president of Prince’s label Paisley Park Records. Leeds, currently a writer of extensive liner notes and music archives, manages tours for musicians and comedians, most notably for Chris Rock’s tours over the last few years. Leeds met D’Angelo during his Brown Sugar days, when the artist was just an opening act.
“I saw him a couple of times back then,” Leeds recalls, “and this was how I described him: a kid in a trench coat who sat at a keyboard. I don’t if he was shy or just getting his performance feet wet, but remember this is someone who has been performing in front of audiences since he was a kid in church. It’s not like standing in front of an audience and singing was new to him.”
The two formed a friendship. By the year 2000, Leeds was working, as the manager for the tour supporting D’Angelo’s follow-up album, Voodoo. There, he witnessed D’Angelo’s unraveling from within. It started with the video for Voodoo’s lead single “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” where a half naked D was positioned at the front of the camera to make his six-pack abs the star, at the encouragement of his then-manager Dominique Trenier and director Paul Hunter. Leeds asserts that while most men might enjoy being ogled, D’Angelo felt his bare pecs were getting in the way of fans absorbing his music when he performed it live. When fans would chant “Take it off!” during shows, D would ask Leeds: “What the fuck is this, Chippendales? Are they paying attention to the music?” Leeds says D’Angelo’s humiliation provoked, in part, his extended break.
Leeds talked frequently with D’Angelo over that time, mainly about sports and music, before becoming D’Angelo’s co-manager around 2012. Says Leeds: “I always knew that sooner or later—praying to God he stayed healthy—he would reach the point where he would say: ‘Ya know what? Enough. Let’s put something out.’ Because, contrary to popular belief, he could’ve put it out six to 10 years ago. There’s enough material that could’ve been finished. It wasn’t like he spent 14 years on just these songs. It just never came together as an album that he felt represented the statement he wanted to make. There was never a collection of songs that he felt strongly enough as a unit to put out as an album.”
Leeds argues that D’Angelo’s perfectionism is funded by a personality that isn’t bound to the almighty dollar. Most artists have to return to the spotlight to pay for their lifestyles. Not D’Angelo. “He’s the least materialistic person I’ve ever encountered in my life,” says Leeds. “You get questions all the time like, ‘What does he do for money? How does he live? Doesn’t he worry about his career?’ All of the questions that even I would ask about this talented artist who goes years and years without new product. It raises all of these obvious questions. The bottom line is I think if he weren’t an artist—if he wasn’t an artist gifted the way he was—he would be a hippie living in the woods off the salt of the earth. I don’t mean that he’s not cosmopolitan or sophisticated, he just isn’t driven by materialistic things.”
D’Angelo’s precision requires an almost superhuman patience from his creative team, and his disregard for wealth means that no one can be in it for the dough. Thankfully, everyone surrounding him had their own means of making a living, so they could afford the labor of love. “This is probably the first time in his career where he has a team around him that all see things the same way,” says Leeds.
“The good news,” Leeds explains, “is it is absolutely delightful to work with an artist that works the way he does, as untraditional as it is. There are dozens and dozens of humongously talented artists of all kinds that never find the commercial niche that can be artistically challenging to work with, but it’s almost coitus interruptus, because you don’t get the orgasm, you don’t get the success at the end of the rainbow. With D’Angelo you get your cake and eat it too because you get the artistic vision of the passion project, but you also get the orgasm of the success.”
Alan Leeds recalls the day that the name of Kevin Liles came up in conversation with D’Angelo. “I guess it was around the middle of 2011 when he called me,” Leeds says. “I was doing a lot of writing, living in Minneapolis and kind of off the beaten path.” Leeds, a confidante but not yet manager at the time, told D’Angelo: “You don’t need a manager who really loves you, you need a manager who can really help you.” Liles was that guy.
Kevin Liles began his career as a promotions intern at Def Jam in 1991, and by 1998 rose to become president of the label. When his boss and mentor, Lyor Cohen, left to run Warner Music Group, he made Liles Executive Vice President. In 2009, Liles left to form his own management company, with Trey Songz as the anchor artist. And when Cohen resigned from his position at Warner, he joined forces with Liles and Todd Moscowitz to form 300 Entertainment—a combo management firm and label distributed by Atlantic Records.
Throughout that time, Liles had been riding with D’Angelo as a friend. But when D’Angelo was ready to return to the spotlight he turned to Liles’ business savvy. Liles was able to help D’Angelo navigate through a tangled web of record deals. The next step was getting him back into the live sphere.
“The reason why I got him out on the road was because I wanted him to feel the people,” Liles explains. “I wanted him to play the records, but pick certain things, like going to show up at Bonnaroo. Everything was calculated. Like we’re gonna go do a GQ article. These were things that people want to act like weren’t part of a plan all along.”
D’Angelo had stringent requirements for his studio lineup that slowed the pace of recording. It had to sound right. “He only uses Russ [Elevado] for engineering,” says Liles.“[D’Angelo would say] ‘No I don’t want any old bass player, I need Pino [Palladino], I need Jesse [Johnson], I need Questlove.’ A lot of people were on tour, a lot of people had other things to do. It wasn’t just putting out a record. I remember him pulling up records because a word didn’t sound right and him putting it back up on the board. He wanted the perfect storm.”
When Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Russell Elevado weren’t in the studio with D’Angelo, they were both actively doing their part to keep D in the front of people’s minds. Over the course of D’Angelo’s absence, Thompson in particular became part spokesperson, part oracle, mentioning the singer in interviews, alluding to his elusive third album and its impending release.
Was Liles confident that Black Messiah was going to arrive when it did? “No,” he says with a laugh. “I knew we were close. I knew that we had an amazing opportunity for it to come, but it was really in D’s mind that he wanted a message in his music. It was moreso they [the fans] needed it. It became less of him [as] we got closer.”
Toward the end of 2014, D’Angelo turned his focus to the events in Ferguson. Liles recalls D’Angelo telling him: “Yo Kev, you see what’s going on out here? That’s why I wrote ‘Charade.’ I’ve got the soundtrack for everything that’s happening right now. We’ve gotta come. We’ve gotta come.”
“I don’t think he made an album. He made an experience,” Liles says. “I know he was going for something that stood for something. He was going for a period piece. He wanted everyone to know that on December 15, it was never about being the best album of 2014, it was about the message. I think many people are shocked that it’s here right now, but it will be a defining moment in music.”
Now that Black Messiah has arrived, the people who stuck by D’Angelo are elated. For them, at least, there is completion.
“I feel like I found my best bottle of wine,” says Liles. “Not my most expensive, but my best bottle of wine, that I aged for a period time and got to drink a glass.”
Cooper quotes Questlove saying, “‘If they gave MacArthur Genius Awards for music, [D’Angelo] would deserve one,’ because of the musicianship and all of the historical elements of what makes him a person, a human being, soul, funk, jazz.”
Adds Leeds: “I will go to my grave saying, ‘You know what? I was part of James Brown’s Sex Machine and Payback, I was part of the Purple Rain phenomenon, and I’m part of Voodoo and Black Messiah.’ And that’s what matters to me.”
It was the end of a 14-year cycle during which D’Angelo lost a number of former mentors and handlers, leaving only those who truly believed. “Anybody who was in it for any other reason fell by the wayside,” Leeds says. “Anybody left standing had to be as crazy as us.”
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