D'Angelo has built a considerable reputation on the basis of three albums: 1995's Brown Sugar, 2000's Voodoo, and now Black Messiah, unexpectedly released early Monday morning. The singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist has been widely praised for connecting many decades of different rhythm & blues styles, and Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker says Black Messiah is as adventurous as any fan could hope for.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. D'Angelo has built a considerable reputation on the basis of three albums, 1995's "Brown Sugar", "Voodoo," released in 2000 and now, "Black Messiah," unexpectedly released early Monday morning. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has been widely praised for connecting many decades of different rhythm and blues styles. And rock critic Ken Tucker says "Black Messiah" is as adventurous as any fan could hope for.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T THAT EASY")
D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) Take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside. Let your days slip away come with me and ride. My darlin', you aren't the average kind. You need the comfort of my loving to bring out the best in you. I hope that you do see what you've given to me. Separating, debating. Stay with me, that's all you got to do.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The man who helped inspire the term neo-soul, D'Angelo is a musician who, at the turn of this century, was seen by a lot of people as the great R&B hope. He was the creator who was to yank soul music from the mists of nostalgia, dry it off and give it a good, modern twist. He did just that on the album "Voodoo" in the year 2000, and especially during the tour he launched to promote it. One show I saw stands as one of the most exciting concerts I've ever attended. But D'Angelo keeps his own time in more ways than one. Thus, the decade and a half separating "Voodoo" and the new "Black Messiah" collapses years and genres, sounding at once stuck in time and timeless.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAH DADDY")
D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) It's just the way she's so raw and uncut. She needs a spanking to shake her up. And I just wish that I could open her up to this deeper place of love. High priced snake skin on her arm, lace satin covering up her charms. You should have seen the way they tossed and turned, the way she made the congregation squirm.
TUCKER: That's "Sugah Daddy," an irresistible little piano groove that more or less refuses to give it up its lyric, which is multitracked and slurred and generally messed with to the point of incoherence. I like the song a lot, though I do wish D'Angelo had deigned to enunciate a clever line such as, you say you want to be the one she chooses to star in her meaningless romance. A lot of "Black Messiah" is like this - long, discursive jams that tiptoe over the five-minute mark, hallmarks of lover-man balladry. But each jam is its own reward. Check out the country blues of "The Door".
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DOOR")
D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) I told you once but twice, you wasn't very nice. In your hands you held my life. I told you once but twice, my love, don't lock yourself out that door. No, no, no. Don't lock yourself out that door.
TUCKER: All is not sensuous playfulness. "1,000 Deaths" begins with a soundbite from "The Murder Of Fred Hampton," a 1971 documentary about the Chicago Black Panther shot dead by the police. The lyric has a first-person narrator talking of being locked and loaded and hoping he'll be unafraid to face death. If it wasn't for the Fred Hampton excerpt, you'd think it was about someone in the military rather than civilian militants. The music is a dense thicket of noise with the rhythm section laying down a line of fire amidst the chaos.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1,000 DEATHS")
D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) I can't believe I can't get over my fear. They're going to send me over the hill. Ah, the moment of truth is near. They're going to send me over the hill. I can't believe I'm so caught up in the thrill. Ain't nothing going to change my will. Locked and loaded up, and I know the drill. They're going to send me over the hill.
TUCKER: D'Angelo makes a point of saying in the album credits that he does not consider himself a Black Messiah. For me, he writes, the title is about all of us. It's about the world. It's about an idea we can all aspire to, which is as good a cue as any to point out that messages and lyrics have never been D'Angelo's strong suit, which is why, I assume, Kendra Foster, a George Clinton P-Funk graduate, gets co-writing credit on eight tracks here. This album is credited to D'Angelo and The Vanguard, The Vanguard being collaborators including singer-lyricist Foster, drummer Questlove and horn player Roy Hargrove among many others. Together, they make frequently beautiful music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETRAY MY HEART")
D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) As the day must have its sun and the night must have its moon, sure as both must rise and fall, I'll be there to see you through. Just as long as there is time, I will never leave your side. And if ever that you feel that my love is not sincere, I will never betray my heart. I will never betray my heart. I will never betray my heart. Like the breeze that blows in June, I will steady keep you cool. This I swear with all that's true, I'll take nothing in place of you. 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. I will never betray my heart. I will never betray my heart.
TUCKER: Given how long he worked on this rich, thick music, I know I'm going to be spending a lot more time teasing out more meaning from "Black Messiah". He's no messiah, and I'm no blind worshiper. But I do know that the faithful will be rewarded with repeated listenings.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed D'Angelo's new album, "Black Messiah". If you want to catch up on interviews you missed or just listen to FRESH AIR on your own schedule, check out our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or on your mobile app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.