D’Angelo & The Vanguard
Review written by Soul Jones
It’s easy to get caught up in the social media whirlwind. I nearly did myself, hovering over the send key on a gushing hashtag after just one song: “#15YearsIsAShortTimeToWaitForAWorkOfGenius.” To be able post that would have been sweet. A play on the “two years” version concocted as a marketing slogan/apology by Sly Stone’s camp when the Family Stone leader was dragging his heels, following up the late sixties classic Stand with the even better There’s A Riot Goin’ On.
This time around, the label’s marketing/division has done an equally expert job in spinning what has been an excruciating one-and-a-half decade wait of rumours and false starts, into a surprise pre-Christmas gift. The spiel goes that apparently D’Angelo (& The Vanguard – his new band which features amongst others bass maestro Pino Palladino, Time/Original 7 deserter Jesse Johnson on lead guitar, Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson on drums and She-Funk George Clinton protégé Kendra Foster) hadn’t intended to put out the sensationally titled Black Messiah until feeling compelled by recent events in Ferguson to “rush release” the album into the marketplace. D apparently told his (and former Prince) tour manager Alan Leeds, “I need to speak out.” This we learn via the press release, making the timing of the release not only a surprise, but relevant to current events. Bravo, Sony PR.
To crank up the anticipation, a Manhattan based listening party was swiftly arranged for a Sunday night, hosted by leading African American music writer/commentator Nelson George with award winning director Spike Lee also in attendance. And as you’d expect, all the critics loved him in New York.
Mercifully, “Side A” of Black Messiah does begin with a revelation, the brilliant, hazy blues of Ain’t That Easy, with its intro of demonic-barber-shop-quartet harmonies, a staple of the funk styling’s of Van Hunt and Bilal – no longer ahead of the game and playing catch up D’Angelo now has to bear comparisons with his contemporaries, like they’ve had to whilst promoting every one of their releases throughout his absence – but not all the way slopped out like Funkadelic or Jimi Hendrix, as promised by the electrified Voodoo tour performances of Shit, Damn, Motherfucker or the heavy metal skull shaped guitar worn on his recent shows with The Vanguard, but still, a gnarly riff in the right direction.
The rest of Side A is made up of songs previously unveiled to D zealots & internet surfers. Sugah Daddy, the first single, played on D’Angelo’s tours since 2012 with The Vanguard, picks up where Devil’s Pie on Voodoo left off and is manically catchy, like P-Funk with jazz hands. The Charade, another live fixture, is a non-too subtle reference to the Prince bootleg of the same name, sounding like one of the Revolution era B-sides, during Prince’s glory years. Like Sugah Daddy, The Charade with its social commentary lyrically stands out, talking of “All we wanted was a chance to talk/’Stead we only got outlined in chalk/Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked.” The wit and wordplay of co-writer Kendra Foster’s contributions to both add a little mo’ substance to the brew.
With the album showpiece, 1000 Deaths, D’Angelo takes Chicken Grease from Voodoo, adds the killer chord change that was always missing, and then draws on the many influences found in his vinyl collection to create a whole new thang. Sly’s PCP fuelled slap bass thump is in there along with the foreboding clap and snap of Miles Davis’ On The Corner. A little Electric Lady wah-wah recorded in lo-fi like that which emanated from the Dirty Mind of Prince and his basement studio. This isn’t afro punk, which is basically a term for regular everyday white-skinned punk played by musicians with a brown skin tone, but real slop, i.e. the original black innovation of rock and roll, funked up with soul.
Despite not having a lyric sheet, the malevolence of 1000 Deaths (from the Shakespeare quote “a coward dies a thousand deaths”) could be felt when it was first “leaked” nearly five years ago. Then, the seven-minute version, without the “black Jesus” sermon sampled at the beginning, appeared to be an anti-war cry. Now, sample present, it comes off like an empowering call to arms, Malcolm X as opposed to What’s Going On’s Martin Luther King. The irony being that since Black Messiah’s release has gone viral, the momentum of New York’s recent million strong Justice For All protest march has moved off of status updates and instead been replaced by the excitement of a commercially released, entertainment product.
The lovely but simple Really Love, the first track to be leaked in 2007 (courtesy of ?uestlove), ends Side A like a lushly produced interlude – not hidden by the fact an extra minute of orchestral music has been edited to the beginning to mask its brevity.
With much of the music known to the D fanbase, this is the side that D’Angelo appears to have stressed over so much. With its first out and out forays into slop territory, D’Angelo must have been aware that in 1000 Deaths he had something different, and that Sugah Daddy, born out of his own stylistic approach, but with commercial appeal, had finally enabled him to produce a lead single without the aid of a super producer (Raphael Saadiq or DJ Premier) or rap collaboration (Method Man & Redman).
Side B, on the other hand, with all new music but a familiar sound, is much less progressive. Whilst lyrically striking, the songs appear to have been crafted with the same Marvin Gaye technique of jam ‘til it emerges approach – with the emphasis more on rhythm and harmony, than melody and chords. But whereas this worked in 2000, on the dry funk soundscape of Voodoo, by adding polish, strings and horn arrangements here the compositions sound outdated and needlessly shined (as they did for Marv on later projects). The jaunty yet formulaic Back To The Future is pure wishful thinking, hoping to groove its way into the present. The déjà vu Spanish Guitar of Betray My Heart has the clarity of an Al Green vocal, whilst Til It’s Done (Tutu), a plea on the ecology, proves the producer D’Angelo has learnt a thing or two from mentor Raphael Saadiq (think Instant Vintage era or Bilal’s Soul Sista) with a strange feminine falsetto vocal that sounds un-erringly like Erykah Badu.
The off-beat on Prayer (which overall sounds a bit like a Lewis Taylor track before he allegedly became a plumber) is nothing new, being a J.Dilla inspired trick D’Angelo has long conjured ever since Playa Playa (which rumour has it Lenny Kravitz refused to play on at the time, commenting that it was “out of time”).
Another Life, understandably tagged onto the end, is unlike anything else on side B. A sweet sitar ballad that will ensure D’Angelo never has to cover Heaven Must Be Like This by Ohio Players ever again.
Caucasian rock critics used to the safety of Gregory Porter or the predictability of Will.I.Am have been startled by the set, as has the black music audience thrilled to have a soulful spokesman again, who sings rather than raps. But once the dust has settled, of both black and white skinned fans, it might dawn on a few listeners that the rush of enthusiasm has been a tale of the emperor’s neo clothes, where five of the (albeit superb) songs featured have long been in the public domain already, and much of “Side B” would struggle to make the cut on either of D’Angelo’s previous albums.
Black Messiah might not be quite the second coming some of us wished for, but rather, a reassuring Voodoo-style slight return.