Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Album Review: Black Messiah by D'Angelo and The Vanguard

D'Angelo is an interesting artist. He came out with his first album in 1995. It went to number 22, produced 2 top 40 singles and was critically acclaimed. It was five years until his next album in 2000. It went to number 1, produced another top 40 hit, and was again critically acclaimed. Then he essentially disappeared. On December 15th of 2014, after all the critics had put together their end of the year lists, he released his third studio album. No one had any idea it was coming out. It went to number 5 on the US chart and was claimed by many to be the best album of 2014, if only they had known it was coming. It would not surprise me if it ends up winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2015.

I must confess D'Angelo has only been a name to me, I knew nothing about his music and so Black Messiah is my introduction to him. This means I have no idea what his earlier work sounds like, but I can talk about this one.

Before we get into this album we need to first talk about two other artists: Sly Stone and Prince.

There is only one king of funk James Brown. But there are two other artists who brought funk into the mainstream in very interesting ways. We have to start with Sly Stone.

Sly & the Family Stone came out with their first album in 1967, they were essentially done by 1973. But during that short time they had two distinct halves. With Life in 1968 and Stand! in 1969 we get the upbeat Sly Stone. A man who brilliantly took funk and blended it with psychedelic rock. This period was followed by the darker Sly Stone with the 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On and then the 1973 Fresh. Our focus for this review goes to There's a Riot Goin' On.

Apparently by 1971 Sly Stone was struggling mightily with drug addiction, and things were not going so well in the United States. The darkness in his life and the darkness of the world produced a change in Sly and so we get the brilliant There's a Riot Goin' On. He brings in some elements of modern jazz for this album. The sound also gets fuzzy and heavy, and his vocals become cloudy. It's a brilliant album and quite simply a one of a kind. It's political, it's personal, it's a masterpiece and a hugely influential album.

From Sly Stone we jump quite a few years to Prince. Prince was the heir to Sly in bringing funk into the modern sound. Prince by the time he releases 1999 in 1984 has figured out how to bring funk fully into the new wave sound and blend it with pop rock. This formula gives us 1999 and Purple Rain. But Prince would continue to evolve his sound and by 1986 he, like Sly, found an interesting space for funk where he was bringing in components of jazz to mix with rock with Parade.

This brings us to 2014 and D'Angelo. If you were to marry There's a Riot Goin' On with Parade you can pretty much get to Black Messiah. It's a dark album with a fuzzy sound that forces you to immediately think of There's a Riot Goin' On, but it also carries that energy and emotion of Parade.

What D'Angelo has pulled off here is brilliant. It feels modern, completely unique, but you can hear these influences from the past behind everything. It works quite well and for pulling this off D'Angelo and The Vanguard are to be praised. However, there is a problem. There's a Riot Goin' On gave us "Family Affair," and Parade gave us "Kiss." The truth is there are no moments like these on Black Messiah. As we talked about with the Foo Fighters no moment where you find yourself thinking wow, I gotta hear that again.

Following the Rhapsody rating method I give it 3 out of 5 stars for Pretty Good.

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