D’Angelo caps his remarkable comeback with three 2016 Grammy nominations. One of them, Best R&B Album, is for his revelatory comeback with his band the Vanguard, Black Messiah, which is his first album in nearly 15 years.
The other two nominations, Record of the Year and Best R&B Song, are for the album’s breakout single, the lushly romantic “Really Love.” However, even three nominations underrate D’Angelo’s majestic soul treatise on love, aging, and black identity.
D’Angelo seeks to revive soul music’s glorious and spiritually infused past. You get the sense his goals are loftier than the industry respect a Grammy Award confers.
D’Angelo released his third album with little more than a few days warning on December 15, 2014, leaving critics and fans to wonder if they should tear up their year-end lists and make room for the musician’s long-awaited return. (Some critics chose to include the album on their 2015 best-of year-end lists.)
Black Messiah may have initially soared on the excitement of its surprise release, but it proved a poor long-term strategy.
When the calendar turned to 2015, we unconsciously associated his album with the previous year’s news, and Black Messiah subsequently languished in record sales. The arrival of another meditation on blackness, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, probably didn’t help focus our attention.
Still, Black Messiah certainly deserves to be considered for Album of the Year alongside Lamar’s Butterfly and others.
Did D’Angelo’s Throwback Sound Throw the Grammys?
It could be because Black Messiah is an idiosyncratic and somewhat-unfashionable album that is was overlooked by the Grammys for its biggest prize.
D’Angelo refined the album’s rich stew of funk, soul and blues over several years, fully absorbing his James Brown and Sly Stone influences into a sound that hearkens to the past, yet is wholly concerned with the present. (Fittingly, one of his songs is the nostalgic “Back to the Future (Part I).”)
He only wrapped up recording when the highly publicized protests in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere over law enforcement killings of unarmed black men convinced him that Black Messiah could resonate with a wide audience.
Yet Black Messiah sounds gloriously out of step in comparison to the other Album of the Year candidates, and despite the presence of “The Charade,” where D’Angelo sings about racial inequality and those aforementioned police shootings, and delivers his now famous line, “All we wanted was a chance to talk/Instead we only got outlined in chalk.”
He may mine a throwback sound just like shaggy blues-rock-cum-esoteric-revivalists Alabama Shakes, whose Sound & Color is up for the main prize. But where Alabama Shakes is propelled by the firecracker energy of Brittany Howard; D’Angelo lilts in an affected croon that evokes Sly Stone at his most enigmatic, and assembles loose grooves that take time to unwind.
D’Angelo and his band luxuriate in their funk rhythms, and eschew the sensory overload that underlines so much modern music, whether it’s Kendrick Lamar rapping a mile a minute on Butterfly, Taylor Swift stacking up melodies into a pop firewall on 1989, or The Weeknd yelping animatedly in his best Michael Jackson impression on Beauty Behind the Madness. Only Chris Stapleton and his measured country storytelling on Traveller has the same leisurely pace, if not the same sound and themes, as Black Messiah.
D’Angelo aims for a classic sound on Black Messiah. He uses analog instruments and recording techniques. He seeks to revive soul music’s glorious and spiritually infused past for a new generation unfulfilled by R&B’s troubled and sometimes-mechanical present. When you hear the album, you get the sense his goals are loftier than the industry respect a Grammy Award confers.