Black Messiah, the long-awaited new album from the enigmatic soul singer D'Angelo, is out now on iTunes and Spotify after nearly 15 years—one month and 16 days short of 15, to be exact)—the pieces fell into place, and fast. Late last week, a cryptic album trailer surfaced on YouTube, and on Saturday evening, Red Bull Music Academy released the first new D'Angelo track in years, "Suggah Daddy." At an intimate listening party the following evening, writer Nelson George revealed that the album would be widely available that very night, at 12 a.m. on December 15. Not quite a Beyoncé-style surprise release, but certainly a stunningly quick and secretive rollout.
The urgency of the release is as much about the timeliness of the record's content than it is industry-based. At the listening session, George suggested that Black Messiah is a rare record that "is speaking to the moment it's being released in"; Questlove, who worked extensively with D'Angelo on Black Messiah and DJ'd last evening's event, likened it to "the Apocalypse Now of black music" before hitting play. "I really don't want to give a hyperbolic, grandiose statement, but it's everything," he said.
In a written statement introducing the album, D'Angelo explained that "[Black Messiah is] about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decided to make change happen." He continued, "Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest."
This is an album with so much richness, such a wealth of layers to peel back. and so many dimensions to explore, but here are a few first-blush impressions and lessons that have struck us so far.
The cryptic promotional posters that began appearing around the city last last week featured an evocative line from the song "The Charade": All we wanted was a chance to talk/ 'Stead we only got outlined in chalk. Following a weekend during which thousands of people marched in support of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and too many more police victims to name, the line that follows feels even more timely: Feet have bled a million miles we've walked/ Revealing at the end of the day/ The charade. The charade here, it can be assumed, being the immortal declaration that all mean are created equal.
The album's second song, "1000 Deaths," comes across as less a meditation than a call to action. The agitated protest song has been floating around the internet for some time now, and was featured in last week's album teaser; it opens with audio lifted from The Murder of Fred Hampton, the 1971 documentary about the death of a Black Panther leader Fred Hampton at the hands of the Chicago Police. I won't nut up when we up thick in the crunch, D'Angelo sings, muffled but clear in his charge. Because a coward dies a thousand times, but a soldier on dies just once.
Ultimately, D'Angelo still believes in the power of love. He ends "Prayer," a song on the album written entirely by himself, with this refrain: And all this confusion around me/ Give me peace/ I believe that love...These type of sentiments have been D's bread and butter in the past, and he doesn't disappoint in the present, either: on "Ain't Easy," he argues that the comfort of being loved brings out the best in us. I tell you this sincerely/ I need to bring out the comfort of your lovin to bring out the best in me, he sings. On "Really Love," he admits I'm not an easy man, to understand, you feel me/ But girl you are patient with me, to a girl with whom he admits to "mingling nectars" with. And on "I Will Never Betray My Heart," he sings, When you're feeling down, down, down, you, my soul, can depend on me/ You don't ever have to fear/ That my love is not sincere.
3. That Six Pack
D'Angelo has seen his share of personal struggles in the 14 years between Voodoo and Black Messiah, but he least of all wants any one worrying about is his once-famed physique. So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in/ I hope it ain't my abdomen that you're referring to, he sings on "Back In The Future (Part 1)." Because what Black Messiah serves to remind, among many other things, is that he's always been about much more than just his looks.