Welcome back, brotha. Welcome back. Everyone’s waking up to the midnight bomb drop that is D’Angelo’s first official record since releasing “Voodoo” almost 15 years ago. The magnificent “Voodoo” is a record that serves as a marker for just how good music can be, let alone modern black music. In the last three decades, we’ve had at least three perfect soul records: Prince’s gargantuan masterpiece, “Sign o’ the Times” (1987), Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun” (2000) and “Voodoo” (2000). (Maybe throw in Curtis Mayfield’s under-appreciated 1997 record, “New World Order”.) Needless to say, it’s a lot of pressure for D’Angelo to live up to, following the now-famous 2008 Spin article (“D’Angelo: What the Hell Happened?”), which talked about the premature demise of the man, crushed by drinking and straining under the stress of keeping up the ripped-ab image swooned over by ladies who screamed for the singer to rip off his t-shirt and bare the famous abs they drooled over in the video for “Untitled (How Does it Feel)”. D’Angelo even sings about fake friends and fans in a new track, “Back to the Future (Part I)”: “I been wonderin’ / If I can ever again / So if you’re wonderin’ / About the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen / That you’re referring to.”
In truth, D’Angelo has been up and running for awhile now, touring since 2012, most-likely honing the sounds for his latest work, “Black Messiah”. There’s a lot for everyone to like about this record, from the soulful sway of the ballad “Really Love”, which opens with a woman talking lightly in Spanish, a flamenco guitar leading into strings and blossoming into R&B elegance. There’s a bit of Prince’s sound in this record too, P-funk, polished jazz, wild Questlove beats, J.B.-like horns, and a touch of “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”. It’s a record with a forthright theme, bent on describing and offering a view of a world in need of some soul fixin’ — whether it’s addressing Wall Street greed, a need for love, personal redemption, environmental pollution (ala Marvin Gaye), white-American regress or black redress. “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” asks what direction we’re all going in. Rapper Q-Tip and musician Kendra Foster, recently of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic tribe, are listed as helping write the songs.
What I really love about this new album is how comfortable D’Angelo seems to feel back on the mic. The first half isn’t a traditional straight R&B. Frankly, there’s not much straightforward about the actual music on the record. It’s a chameleon — wistful, stutter-stepping, strutting, tender, romantic, melodic, souful, jumping, and cross-pollinated. Their are Hendrix guitar flourishes, cacophonous grooves that show an artist unafraid of losing the appeal of the standard soul listener. There’s also polyphonic vocals, slurred stylings, movements in and out of musical genres — D’Angelo blending in-the-red sonics, percussion and bass into his own funk concoction — like the old D’Angelo running into a revamped version of himself. One just needs to listen to the great groove of “Prayer”, a high-falsetto invocation, to hear everything that makes this record good. “Back to the Future (Part I)” is a masterclass, and one of the best tracks. It begins with a plucked string (could it possibly be a banjo?) hitting a strutting rhythm, joined by thumping bass, crooning, spoken words, and the din of a crowd, before the maestro jumps in to hit those golden notes only he can sing. This is a wonderful resurrection.