Begin with “the one”. That immortal, James Brown stamped pneumonic musical signature was the thing that tied Michael D’angelo Archer to so many spirits and ghosts in black music, and the reason that each and every one of his albums have shook up fans. At their best, Brown Sugar and Voodoo shared a kinship with the tone poem projects of Brown, Sly S…tone, Curtis Mayfield, and Parliament-Funkadelic. Each of D’angelo’s albums did not drop as much as they shook and unsettled, so radically different from their time as to be in their own idiom. In a time of power pop r&b and candy gangsta records, Sugar exquisitely melded late 60’s black jazz/soul club cool with homeboy sensibility. Five years later, when power pop r&b was replaced with just power pop, Voodoo’s scary stoner funk took everyone looking for him to be the next Marvin Gaye off guard.
Even in the fifteen years since Voodoo-as D’angelo became more of a ghost than an artist channelled by the spirits-black music snobs couldn’t let him go. Yes, both records weren’t perfect: a quarter of time Sugar was neighborhood-stupid and a third of the time Voodoo was the funk equivalent of a mediocre Grateful Dead record. But its high points were so stunning and so majestic in how they carried, interpolated, and modernized black history, that fans couldn’t help but feel his loss. Even if he wasn’t Marvin , he was something; and if the drug and alcohol fueled torment he had over his religious/sexual background suggested that he was done, then both albums showed that he had done enough.
WAAYYULL if there is anything we learned these few months, it’s that D’angelo ain’t done (and “the one” is the first indicator). In the wild-trippy-muddy-funky-jazz-soul-gospel-afro beat-blackety black black ass album that is Black Messiah, his sense of the back beat is so…so…disciplined? Yes, disciplined! By god, Michael Archer, the stoner king of black pop, has returned as the sharpest black bandleader on the planet. And the angriest. And one of the most eloquent. And the results have made the music world a little nuts with joy. To paraphrase Larry Merchant’s description of Buster Douglas’ victory over Mike Tyson, Black Messiah is a comeback that makes Cinderella look like a sad story.
In the overall consciousness and clarity D’angelo shows in expressing his anger, a story emerges. Time and time again in the first half of Messiah, D’angelo hints at the history of black funk before freebase and suggests a redo. You can hear it in the guitar/slap bass of “Ain’t That Easy”, with a sound that’s dark and edgy but coherent; in the machine gun percussion of “1000 Deaths” where delirious anger is accompanied by something closer to Fela than noise funk; and “Charade”, a precise, exquisite protest song that-in it’s rhyme couplets- harkens a sober Gil Scott Heron. So much of this album sounds like if Sly, George and Gil never touched the crack pipe and a generation of funkateers followed them. Like every great political album, Messiah is about processing, and songs like “Charade” tells us that if we are going to process the new jim crow we have to process it clearly. And also get down while doing it. And for the most part, he sounds like a super hero in the process.
That said, a funny thing happened on the way to him becoming the new John Shaft. In the second half of the record he cuts down his swagger, becomes more introspective and…moves me more? The culture warrior king of the first part of Messiah might be the most charismatic masculine figure in soul music since Sly before cocaine, but it is still a figure. It is a sight, a joyous sight, but one with its feet not on the ground(and-lets be honest-a one too macho by a bit: “Easy” might not be gender specific in it’s-”you can’t quit me” message to America and black music fans, but it’s dynamics are still loaded. )
It is in “Back To The Future”-where he stops being the titan who will save black music and morphs into an ex nerd who doesn’t want to be a junkie star anymore-where he becomes something more powerful in my eyes. The music-a tone poem centered around a country slap bass-is so badass, you almost forget the song’s about about D’angelo claiming his heath. “Tutu” and “Prayer” show he’s apt in the philly soul playbook of loving political pop songs: free of cant, unpretentious and aggressively thoughtful. And at his best,” Really Love” and “Another Life” are D’angelo telling his audience that there is no black revolution without love, reciprocal, gorgeous, pluralistic love that makes almost every love man on the planet look silly.
Who knows how the public will respond to this. I’m sure there will come a time when a R&B/hip hop predator will issue another report from the patriarchy and the music industry will try and shove it down Black America’s throat. But by god, what a moment this is for black music, a moment that D’angelo has put himself at the center of. He, Kendrick Lamar, Mary J Blige, J Cole, Prince, Jean Grae, Flying Lotus, Janelle Monae, Frank Ocean, ThEE Satisfaction, Nikki Minaj and Beyonce have taken a torch to black radio formats, and-in this black music snob’s opinion-the results have mostly been majestic. I don’t know how D’angelo and the stories of these other artists’ will end, but after listening to Black Messiah, I am sure of this: that it is one of the greatest albums I have ever heard.