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Mining Gold From The Music Stream: D’Angelo and the Vanguard, Black Messiah

Aaron M. Olson, Messenger Clerk, Silver Lake Branch Library,
Artwork from the album Black Messiah
D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah is available for streaming or download on Freegal

Compared at the time of its release to Sly & The Family Stone’s masterpiece There’s A Riot Goin’ On, The Beach Boys’ near-mythical epic Smile, and the late great Prince, D’Angelo’s 2014 musical reemergence surpassed the high expectations that had grown in the 14 quiet years of inaction since his previous record, Voodoo. To this day Black Messiah stands comfortably tall alongside such giants of musical ingenuity and artistic statement, having carved out its own striking, evergreen sonic world while never failing to engage its listener with harmonic and melodic beauty, irresistible feel and groove, and honed songcraft at its core. The soundscapes and production of Black Messiah are daring and fresh, shifting from muddled flurries of fuzz guitars, tripped-out synths, samples and effects, and indecipherable vocalizations to ultra close-sounding finger snaps (almost ASMR quality), slithering clear-as-day fretless bass lines and heavily layered harmonized crooning. The album plays out like circumnavigating a familiar but uncharted globe, the listener becoming a traveler passing through a multitude of connected yet unique landscapes—moving from a song like “1,000 Deaths” into “The Charade” feels like emerging from a fog-laden swamp into a thick forest where warm shards of sunlight break through occasional gaps of branches and leaves. The songwriting at times is concise but complex and labyrinthian, like an M.C. Escher staircase ascending back into its bottom step, contained within the walls of a modest tower but somehow looping endlessly. This phenomenon is quite apparent on the album highlight “Really Love” where the chord progression and melodic phrase repeat start-to-finish but give off impressions of fluidity and infinity, like a Mobius strip with no beginning or end. Also crucial to Black Messiah’s quintessence is the powerhouse rhythm section of Roots’ drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and stalwart session bassist Pino Palladino, who provide the constantly behind-the-beat, but somehow on-time groove that pushes and pulls every moment and creates an elusive-yet-palpable and alluring rhythmic underpinning.

The musical style of Black Messiah is difficult to pin down, owing much to Prince’s brand of R&B/funk while incorporating elements of rock, jazz, experimental, orchestral, 60’s psychedelic, doo-wop, and much else. Within the scope of a single song, the broad stylistic spectrum may call upon the past, the present, and the future, summoning street corner doo-wop alongside psychedelic sitars in dialogue with spaced-out synthesizer samples. Much like the time-traveling embodied in the album’s stylistic palette, the socio-political statements of Black Messiah span large swathes of time and are as pertinent today as when the album was first released in 2014 and as they would have been in the bygone eras whose musical touchstones D’Angelo culls from and reveres—from the current injustices in the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd to the non-indictments in the murder cases of Michael Brown and Eric Gardner around the time of the album’s release to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and so on. While this collection of songs is enchanting, lovely, and thoroughly enjoyable, it also carries with it a weight that cannot and should not be overlooked; It’s all a part of the art.

Black Messiah joins a prestigious lineage of landmark albums that, while owing much to their musical predecessors, have successfully and unapologetically carved out their own spaces as irreplicable artistic statements that are both urgent and timeless.

D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah is available for streaming or download on Freegal.

Book cover for Black Messiah
Black Messiah