Thank God for Black Messiah, which swooped in out of the sky to nearly save one of the weakest years for music in recent memory. Arriving Beyoncé-style — out of the blue and after all of the critics had released their year-end lists (but also just before Christmas, too) — after a Terrence Malick-like sabbatical, Black Messiah proves D’Angelo to be as enigmatic and singularly talented as his reputation insists. Like Malick, D’Angelo released just two works (both great) before abruptly disappearing for more than a decade — Malick for twenty years, D’Angelo close to fifteen. Even the pre-sabbatical works by both artists were somewhat similar in how they progressed: the first work (Malick’s 1973 film Badlands; D’Angelo‘s 1995 album Brown Sugar) by each expressed incredible talent and craft but didn’t quite share the same shape of each respective artist’s subsequent works; the second work (Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven; D’Angelo‘s 2000 album Voodoo) by each solidified their signature styles.
Malick’s third film (1998’s The Thin Red Line) introduced new themes and techniques (such as the multi-character voiceover), but cinematically was pretty similar to Days of Heaven, adhering to mostly the same form. His subsequent films have all adhered to Days of Heaven‘s cinematic template, come to think of it — Badlands is his only movie that is more film than cinema, though of course the ideas he would later push to a more cinematic limit (such as Sissy Spacek’s voiceover) are present. And Voodoo is where D’Angelo‘s ideas coalesced into a recognizable form that was singular, like Malick’s. (Seriously, give it a listen and tell me with a straight face that someone else in contemporary R&B is even capable of making something that good.) Black Messiah, like The Thin Red Line, is a confirmation of its predecessor.
And Voodoo was certainly a modern masterwork; it was the Loveless of contemporary R&B. Like Loveless and Days of Heaven, Voodoo experienced countless delays and drove its primary creator into seclusion following its release. Believe it or not, this kind of retreat is usually healthy (and even necessary) — when artists toil on a masterwork for a long time, they go nuts, and need to be reminded of what real life is like before they commence work on another project, or their art will stop imitating life. Well, after being completely out of the game for a decade and a half, D’Angelo is back, and once again, he’s got the goods. To be honest, his grasp exceeds his reach a little — as in, the incredible craftsmanship outweighs the (very good but not exceptional) songwriting — which is slightly disappointing.
Given what D’Angelo is capable of, it’s hard not to shake the notion that he could have shot even higher with Black Messiah, but of course, that’s an overly critical stance to take. Like 2013‘s m b v, My Bloody Valentine‘s good-but-not-great comeback LP after 22 years in the wilderness, Black Messiah is a welcome return for a sorely missed talent, but fails to break much new ground. This, however, does not stop it from being one of the very best albums of 2014. There may not be any tracks on Black Messiah as strong as Voodoo‘s “Devil’s Pie” or “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” but there aren’t any bad ones and besides, there are still some really good songs like “Really Love,” “Betray My Heart,” and “Sugah Daddy,” which is my personal favorite.
Black Messiah may lack the bite of Voodoo, but it’s still a pleasure to hear D’Angelo and his cast of collaborators (dubbed “The Vanguard” for the first time here for some reason) do their thing. Very highly recommended.