Friday, January 9, 2015

D'angelo'a Black Messiah

New Yorker - "D'Angelo Reborn"
by Sasha Frere-Jones

"There have been musical comebacks as strong as “Black Messiah,” but not many. Like a New York City radiator, the record is warming and intermittently noisy, too intense to hold tightly but powerful enough to change an entire apartment’s atmosphere. Like “Voodoo,” a hazy, unified piece of hovering funk, “Black Messiah” resembles one piece of music rather than a series of songs. It is so texturally inviting that I played it on loop for three straight days. I didn’t want to get out of it.

As D’Angelo writes in a brief statement included with the album, its title was inspired by events in Ferguson and New York. He is not giving interviews yet, but in his statement he rejects the idea of his being an actual “black messiah.” “For me, the title is about all of us,” he writes. “It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them.” That self-deprecation is the only false note on the record. D’Angelo is worthy of the arrogance of Isaac Hayes, who, in 1971, called an album “Black Moses,” with no apparent metaphoric dodges, and the self-regard of Prince. Arrogance suits pop stars, as their swagger encourages our own, especially in a moment of social fracture. D’Angelo is entitled to brag.

The press reaction to the album has been ecstatic, a sweet antipode to the silence that D’Angelo is keeping. (The most concrete reporting on the album’s making is a series of detailed tweets from its engineers, Ben Kane and Russell Elevado.) D’Angelo started working on new songs soon after “Voodoo.” The comparisons with Prince and Sly Stone are apt, as D’Angelo openly imitates them and refers to them in interviews, but he earns his place at the table in his own way. D’Angelo has little of Prince’s verbal dexterity, and he’s happy to write a lyric like the opening of “Really Love”: “When you call my name. When you love me gently. When you’re walking near me. Doo doo wah, I’m in really love with you. I’m in really love with you.” Prince would twist that five times before letting it out into the world. And D’Angelo may have some of Sly Stone’s rhythmic tics and off-kilter sense of swing, but his taste in horn and vocal arranging does not recall Stone’s otherworldly, dissonant style.

Onstage, D’Angelo is a traditional funk-and-soul-revue taskmaster, wisely borrowing from the game plan followed by Prince and James Brown: assemble a varied band, keep it moving, and use only the best. (D’Angelo’s longtime bassist, Pino Palladino, is probably the greatest living electric-bass player, unless you prefer rackety and showy. If you want rhythmic and melodic grace and a tone somewhere between a bassoon and a very responsive rubber band, Palladino is your man.)

But in the studio D’Angelo has mastered a style that his predecessors only approached. His sound is organically narcotic, short on language but long on texture. “Black Messiah” was recorded entirely in the analogue domain, with no digital interventions, and though such claims are usually best left for the promotional copy, here they are relevant. Very few recordings from any era sound so clean and evanescent, as if you couldn’t pin down exactly what’s happening. D’Angelo works slowly, plays slowly, and waits until everything slips into a simple but shimmering whole. As songs repeated, I kept thinking they’d changed. The swirling guitars that open “Ain’t That Easy” seemed to go both in reverse and forward, and the drum legend James Gadson’s hambone routine on “Sugah Daddy”—slapping his legs as well as playing a full drum kit—felt as if it were in a different time signature every time I heard it.

“Voodoo” was universally and deservedly praised, but seen through the luxurious mesh of “Black Messiah” it sounds unexpectedly piecemeal. The earlier album has a hip-hop element that sits uneasily alongside its strongest parts, where nothing is particularly rowdy but even the calmest songs bubble and twist. As much as I loved DJ Premier’s production on “Devil’s Pie,” D’Angelo is his own best backdrop, much as he’s his own best backup singer. (D’Angelo harmonizing with himself is one of the most acute pleasures available.) “Black Messiah” feels like an object that he held in his hands until it took on a certain physical shape. There seems to be little distance between the players and the music.

Though D’Angelo wrote one great couplet, on “The Charade,” that has already been quoted too often—“All we wanted was a chance to talk, ’stead we only got outlined in chalk”—it is the timing of the release that will stand as the most political aspect of this album. While the most significant and sustained public protests of the past thirty years go on, in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there has been an unsettling lack of response from musicians. How D’Angelo and his team can make voices and instruments so animate and radiant is as mysterious as the recording process gets. We know only that, like most significant change, it takes a long time. "

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