It’s been easy to disregard D’Angelo in recent years as one more celebrity casualty who shone too bright and burned out young.
Born Michael D’Angelo Archer in 1974, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, the Richmond native got his start locally in a band called Michael Archer and Precise, won a national record deal with a homemade demo and released two albums in 1995 (Brown Sugar) and 2000 (Voodoo) that helped to re-define what soul music could be, with equal nods to classic and contemporary influences. As a writer with a sensualist’s eye, a singer who evoked Marvin Gaye’s falsetto, and a producer who came from the Prince school of playful arranging, D’Angelo — also a multi-instrumentalist — was poised to do truly great things.
Then something went wrong. After the Grammy-winning success of Voodoo, the performer retreated to his house in Chesterfield County and became something of a recluse, his most notable public appearances being before local judges as he faced drug possession and DUI charges and, in New York City, a sex solicitation charge (reduced to disorderly conduct). A mug shot made the rounds and it was hard for fans to unsee. Puffy, bloated, wide-eyed, D’Angelo was a far cry from the lean, strapped Afro-Apollo confidently featured on the cover of Voodoo.
On and off, for more than a decade, there were rumors of a new D’Angelo album being recorded called James River, with contributions from the likes of Prince, John Mayer and Kanye West, and songs co-written with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots. Rough tracks would occasionally get leaked as the disc was announced and re-announced. Meanwhile, the man did guest spots on albums by Snoop Dogg, Common, J Dilla and Q-Tip and, in 2012, returned to the stage for the first time in a decade with a tour of Europe, where he performed four new songs. Still, for the most part, Michael D’Angelo Archer has disappeared from mainstream public consciousness.
Then just a few days ago, Black Messiah, the third D’Angelo album, was released on Dec. 15, accompanied by little advance hype other than a dozen years of waiting. And what could very well have been an embarrassment akin to Guns N’ Roses’ long-suffering (and underwhelming) Chinese Democracy is, instead, a beautiful, intoxicating maze of a record. It’s not just a welcome return, Black Messiah is a dense, layered, arty, soulful song cycle that consistently rewards the listener’s close attention. It is exactly what a listener would want in a follow up to Voodoo — and a whole lot more.
From the rambunctious, P-Funk-ish opening track (“Ain’t That Easy”) to the joyous ramble of the disc’s first single, “Sugah Daddy” — a bit of a nod to the classic “Brown Sugar” — D’Angelo spices the 12-song disc with interesting, idiosyncratic vocal melodies and enough instrumental and found-sound exotica to reward multiple listens (the skip-beat “Prayer,” where he discourses on the Bible, could take you an afternoon to unravel).
The funky grooves and angular hooks, built up from ethereal keyboards, raucous electric guitars (so that’s what he’s been doing for the last 14 years), raw drums and mountains of background D’Angelos, are an expansion of his previous neo-soul sound. Black Messiah is an album of sharp dynamics — the hard-pounding (and pleasantly weird) “1000 Deaths” is readymade for a New Year’s Eve party dance floor, while “Til It’s Done (Tutu)” is a shape-shifting mellow jam that concludes in sweet chaos. Overall, this disc is a wild ride, and all the more astounding because it comes from a talent we thought was lost.
Some critics are calling D’Angelo’s Black Messiah the album of the year, and it’s certainly worthy of consideration. The comeback of the year award is a lock.