Year's Best: Okayplayer's Top 14 Albums Of 2014
1. D’Angelo And The Vanguard – Black Messiah
As I contemplated how to gain entry to the surprise Sunday afternoon listening session for D’Angelo‘s Black Messiah some 48 hours ago, one Okayplayer writer asked me, almost resignedly, But is there anyway it could live up to expectations? The answer, it turns out, is of course not but…Yes. The most surprising thing about Black Messiah is that it is, in so many ways, The D’Angelo album we needed and maybe even when we needed it most. It is at once everything music fanatics treasure in the signature sound of Voodoo; the easy soul-healing grooves, the intimate falsetto, the unpretentious love of jazz and sex–and a whole new signature sound in itself. As described in my first-reaction (p)review on Sunday, the familiar elements often serve to tie together several new layers that have only been hinted at by the leaks and live performances; a drunker, more stuttery post-Dilla rhythm section from Questlove and Pino Palladino; a much heavier Funkadelic, even Afropunk rock sound, anchored by D’Angelo’s guitar, which has possibly surpassed his vocal prowess; a mix from Russ Elevado that manages to give these countervailing forces forward thrust by finding an all-analogue soundscape that nevertheless recognizes the sampled dissonance of the Bomb Squad; and–perhaps most importantly–a much darker, more otherwordly and yet more political thematic vision. Black Messiah‘s lyrics and melodic progressions that dance on the churchical edge between rapturous and apocalyptic ( in a way that speaks directly, seemingly prophetically, to the emotionally raw moment America finds itself in at year’s end.
Like many such phenomena, it could not have been planned that way; it had to happen. Without any secret inside knowledge it seems clear that D would probably have continued to perfect Black Messiah until the actual Judgement Day if some security council of management and label heads (and maybe drummers?) had not forced his hand and said, essentially, people need to hear this record now. In that sense the most important reference point for comprehending Black Messiah may not be its obvious musical forebears so much as Bob Marley. Much has been said elsewhere about the record’s rich influences, about D’Angelo’s ability to channel the whole history of black music into a very specific oeuvre, but to name here only the most salient, compared with Prince, Eddie Hazel, Miles Davis, Sly Stone, Junie Morrison, James Brown, and yes, Black Sabbath–Marley’s sonic influence amounts to almost nothing. And yet…it’s been well recorded that at a certain point Marley parted ways with the mainstream of Jamaican music, continuing to explore further and further into his signature roots sound until he was almost a genre and an industry unto himself. With Black Messiah, D’Angelo has done something comparable to soul music. In the context of a year-end list the most striking thing about it may be how not-part-of the current conversation it is; there’s zero attempt to reconcile his approach to r&b with the evolutions embodied by The Weeknd or Frank Ocean, the album’s feel is often drunk or delirious but never screwed and D doesn’t give a good goddamn if there’s Mustard on the beat.
Instead, he has gone deeper into the influences, elevated the sound and the craft and vastly expanded the themes of D’Angelo-in-the-year-2000 to create an incredibly compelling mirror universe to 2014’s musical landscape. All of which begs, perhaps demands, the million dollar question: Better than Voodoo? That’s too early to call, but 48 hours into the coming of Black Messiah, we are ready to formulate this question with a straight mind–and even speak it out loud. -Eddie STATS