I heard D'Angelo for the first time at the turn of the new millennium, and like many people, I felt that I had stumbled onto the savior of modern music. His 2000 masterpiece Voodoo was a completely unique mixture of funk, R&B, gospel, and hip-hop: the guiding star of the nascent neo-soul genre. It went to number one on the Billboard charts, sold millions of copies, and won numerous high profile awards. You could be forgiven for asking, "How is he going to top that?"
The answer was brutally simple: he didn't. For the last 14 years D'Angelo has been silent, save a few middling singles and numerous rumors about his health, sanity, and the progress of a follow up. And then, without much warning, it arrived at midnight last night, a 12-track album entitled Black Messiah. For a man whose career essentially missed the modern internet, new music from D'Angelo did not fail to set social media on fire.
I feel conflicted about critiquing this record, mostly because I'm just overjoyed that D'Angelo feels comfortable and confident to make and release new music. I'm rooting for him, in other words, in a way that I don't for most musicians. Voodoo was such a powerful antidote to the stuff that passed for R&B at my high school, hits from teeny boppers like Britney Spears, N'Sync, and 98 Degrees.
Black Messiah doesn't measure up
If I'm being brutally honest, however, Black Messiah doesn't measure up. The greatest joy of Voodoo was D'Angelo's vocal range, alternating from silky smooth to ragged gospel to lascivious funk. He plays with that diversity on this new album, but to me his vocals sound far less distinctive and are often buried beneath a layer of distortion that smothers the transcendent sensation I get listening to tracks like Voodoo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)."
On "How Does It Feel," D'Angelo's voice is double- and triple-layered, crafting elegant harmonies with himself. The instrumental backing is minimal, building to a series of crescendos around his aching vocals. It was a rare instance of an artist baring himself completely — both musically and, in the unforgettable video, physically. It made him into a sex symbol and, more than decade later, hasn't lost any of its power. The video is four and half minutes, but for the real experience, listen to the full album version and wait for that moment six minutes in (Six. Minutes.) when he completely lets loose.
The new D'Angelo sounds like what it is: the tortured follow-up to an album that cannot be topped
All of which is to say, Black Messiah is music that I like. It's full of live instrumentation, interesting arrangements, and strikingly human vocals that stand out against the majority of singers on the charts and in the clubs these days. There are weird digressions and also tight grooves, but ultimately the new D'Angelo sounds like what it is: the tortured follow-up to an album that cannot be topped, plagued by 14 years of self-doubt from the singular genius at the center of it.
On "Back to the Future (Part I)," D'Angelo sings "So if you're wondering about the shape I'm in / I hope it ain't my abdomen you're referring to." That's a sly joke about his personal struggles with substance abuse and weight gain, a nice moment where he shows a sense of humor about the demons that have kept him silent for so long. I think that's why I feel like such a heel for reviewing this album. Every album cannot be a new Voodoo; hell, it's possible he'll never reach those highs again. I'm just happy D'Angelo is back, and apparently the rest of the internet is, too. I hope this record, whatever its flaws, means we can expect more new music from him, preferably sooner than 2028.