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Worth The Wait: The Transcendent Groove Of D'Angelo's 'Black Messiah'

Dec 15, 2014
Originally published on January 6, 2015 7:25 pm

There's usually reason to be apprehensive when an artist spends years in the workshop on a single set of songs. The results can seem joyless; think Chinese Democracy, which took Guns N' Roses 14 tortured years to finish. D'Angelo spent nearly as much time crafting his new record. He took his time and loaded up some of the tracks with everything from the audio candy store. Incredibly, the music rarely sounds cluttered or overwrought.

In fact, Black Messiah feels downright loose — it's powered by D'Angelo's agitated keyboard jabs and, of course, his low-key, almost subversive intensity as a singer. All of his trademarks are here, including those floridly elaborate vocal harmonies.

Alongside the sultry, slow-moving expressions of romance fans have come to expect from D'Angelo are several songs that address social issues, notably race relations. In a written preamble to Black Messiah, the singer explains that the album title does not refer to himself, saying, "We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah." He references uprisings in Ferguson and in Egypt and "everyplace where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen."

You don't hear nearly 15 years of trial and error on this album — which, remarkably enough, is only D'Angelo's third. Instead, the best moments have that late-night live-jam feeling. D'Angelo worked with many of his longtime collaborators, including The Roots drummer Questlove. These guys make tricky music sound easy, but their intuitive rapport also helps lift grooves like this into the realm of the transcendent.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It took D'Angelo 15 years to put out a new album, and he did that today, surprising his fans and our reviewer Tom Moon. He says the release, titled "Black Messiah," marks the overdue return of an electrifying talent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETRAY MY HEART")

TOM MOON, BYLINE: There's usually reason to be apprehensive when an artist spends years in the workshop on a single set of songs. The results can seem joyless - think "Chinese Democracy," which took Guns and Roses a dozen tortured years to finish. D'Angelo spent even more time on his new record. He loaded up some of the tracks with whatever he could find in the audio candy store. Incredibly, the music rarely sounds cluttered or overwrought.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETRAY MY HEART")

D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) As the day must have the sun and the night must have its moon, sure as both must rise and fall, I'll be there to see you through.

MOON: In fact, this album feels downright loose. It's powered by D'Angelos agitated keyboard jabs and, of course, his low-key, almost subversive intensity as a singer. All of his trademarks are here, including those florid, elaborate vocal harmonies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAH DADDY"

D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) Girl's got a worldly view. Apparently, she sees through you. Her love was never meant to share for two. She said, I'll do it if you'll be my sugar daddy.

MOON: Alongside the sultry, romantic sound fans have come to expect from D'Angelo are several songs that address social issues - notably, race relations. In a written preamble to "Black Messiah," the singer explains that the album title does not refer to himself, saying, we should all aspire to be a black messiah. He references uprisings in Ferguson and in Egypt and, quote, "every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHARADE")

D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) All we wanted was chance to talk. Instead, we only got outlined in chalk. Feet have bled. A million miles we've walked, revealing at the end of the day the charade. Perpetrators beware. Say a prayer, if you dare, for the believers with the faith the size of a seed - enough to be redeemed.

MOON: You don't hear 15 years' worth of trial and error on this album, which - remarkably enough - is only D'Angelo's third. Instead, the best moments have that late night, live jam feeling. D'Angelo worked with many of his long-time collaborators, including the Roots drummer, Questlove. Not only do these guys make tricky music sound easy, their intuitive rapport propels grooves like this one into the realm of the transcendent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T THAT EASY")

D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) I tell you this sincerely. I need the comfort of your love to bring out the best in me.

BLOCK: The latest from D'Angelo and his band The Vanguard is called "Black Messiah." Our reviewer is Tom Moon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T THAT EASY")

D'ANGELO AND THE VANGUARD: (Singing) Can't duplicate it. Faithfully, we'll see this love through. Give yourself a chance. You can't leave me. It ain't that easy to walk away when I want you to stay, baby. Give yourself a chance. You can't leave me. It ain't that easy. OK. Oh, oh, oh, oh. Give yourself a chance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.