D'Angelo's sultry return: Why we needed a “Black Messiah" right now

Every historical movement has had a soundtrack--this is ours

Published December 16, 2014 5:59PM (EST)

D'Angelo      (Virgin Records)
D'Angelo (Virgin Records)

Fourteen years in the making. Slightly unbelievable, but timely nonetheless: D’Angelo and The Vanguard have gifted us with “Black Messiah.” Not in the same repugnant way that Kim Kardashian broke the Internet or in the carefully calculated Twitter-takeover way Beyonce did earlier this year. But in a sort of bam! Ready all at once sort of way. Since 2000, we’ve been playing “Brown Sugar” and “Voodoo” in heavy rotation, sexually frustrated and wanting more. The title of the album “Black Messiah” isn’t hinting at D’Angelo’s sort of second coming to bare salvation to the world. Instead, his lyrics insist that we all should aim to be a “Black Messiah.”

The album comes at a time when we are in dire need of vocal artistic statements on the power of black love, and how transformative it can be amidst our time of movement building. According to a report in the New York Times “D’Angelo and RCA, partly inspired by the nationwide protests over the police killings of unarmed black men, had moved up the release of “Black Messiah” and spent the past month working many all-nighters to decide everything from the track list to the album art, according to interviews with D’Angelo’s collaborators and confidants.”

The album is a bit all over the place: sometimes it’s a wayward journal entry bearing his kinky chronicles and other times it harkens a political message. I think we can all agree that D’Angelo is one of the most controversial, yet profound artist of our generation. He bares his story of 14-years of silence. He struggled with drug, alcohol abuse and a car crash that left him in critical condition. He also wrestled with the criminalization of outing himself as a hyper sexual male, on the cover of “Voodoo, we weren’t ready to see a heterosexual black male put his 6-pack on display like that. After all of this he was in his feeling, and still is. He brings it all to light through these 12 tracks.

During his time away from us, he wasn’t trying to recreate his sound. He’s stayed the same classic r&b, jazz, funk and gospel infused D’Angelo we’ve always known. This time he’s just a little bit more raw, revealing his most inward mixed emotions while he was away from us. He serenades about his escapades of being a passionate, provocative lover, soldier, worshipper, environmentalist and aggravated public observer.

He’s impulsive yet profound, with the telling of his story. He shares with us the ways in which he seeks out and identifies with love, and how ultimately it’s brought healing. “I need the comfort of your love to bring out the best in me,” he says in the third verse of “Ain’t that Easy,” the first song on the album. Then in “Sugah Daddy” he reveals his erotic rapture with a woman. It’s kinky, and sexually aggressive giving cadence to self-evolution and willingness to be real about love.

He’s obviously gone through a lot over the years and it comes as no surprise that he addresses us with “Back to the Future” (part I & II):

I just wanna go back now
The seasons may come and your luck may just run out.
And all that you'll have is a memory, oh.

We have this sort of personal healing experience as we listen, which is so needed right now. In a world that doesn’t encourage emotional checkups, it calls us to this introspective place. It encourages us to take an honest moment and assess how we identify with love and its muscly language. He does this at a pace that isn’t rushed; his lyrics are carried with trumpets, the clarinet, the piano and non-bossy drums, in a sort of jazzy syncopated tune. He soothes us the whole way through.

And in the first verse of "The Charade":

Crawling through a systematic maze
And it pains to demise
Pain in our eyes
Strain of drownin', wading into your lies
Degradation so loud that you can't hear the sound of our cries…

This song gives credence to his bitter observation of the world. It has everything to do with #BlackLivesMatter. Then there's "Till Its Done":

In a world where we all circle the fiery sun
With a need for love
What have we become?
Tragedy flows unbound and there's no place to run
Till it's done
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon:
Where do we belong? Where do we come from?
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon
Till it's done.

This album reminds us that love is not only powerful transformative tool, but also can be real, and less fanaticized. It awakens the consciousness to task the movement with the same sort of love language Martin Luther King’s message of civil disobedience did, which was rooted in the idea that love ought to be our only weapon.

bell hooks said in her first book on love, “All About Love: new visions”: “love does not bring an end to the difficulties, it gives us the strength to cope with difficulties in a constructive way.” It’s important that we recognize the love within this movement, and use it as a means to resist systematic oppression of black bodies in this country. Every historical movement has had an identifiable soundtrack. We are in the process of building ours, and I think its safe to tout “Black Messiah,” as our love track. It’s our healing amidst the movement.

By Priscilla Ward

Priscilla Ward is an over-caffeinated, D.C.-based writer, running enthusiast, music explorer, and founder of BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting @Macaronifro.

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