“Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon / Till it’s done,” D’Angelo says on Black Messiah—a new note, exploring a sonic space I haven’t heard before from him or anyone in recent music, really: a space where there are questions, where we are in dialogue with thought and reflection. As much as the album is steeped, drenched, dripping in past forms, instruments from the past, sounds from the past and ways of singing from the past, it’s this searching attitude that seems to come from the future of music and invade our present. D’Angelo is saying something more than that we currently have unresolved issues, that there are questions. He is saying that we may not even know where the questions come from. That we have to inquire into even the origin of the questions.
The song in which D’Angelo sings these words, “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” is a dour one, lamenting the inaction of the present on issues like climate change (“Carbon pollution is heating up the air / Do we really know? Do we even care?”), the economy (“Clock ticking backwards on things we’ve already built…”), and war, against enemies and against our own population (“Sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed…”). And behind the entire album is the inaction about the plight of black lives, brought to the fore by the shooting of Michael Brown—the event which prompted D’Angelo to release the album early, to give a soundtrack to protest. In his performance on SNL at the beginning of this month, there was the outline of a body in chalk on the stage. Against this discouraging backdrop, we have to wonder whether the questioning coming out of this music really gives us any solutions. Whether questioning may be, actually, a waste of time, as some people might argue. Or whether, as I think, it is the only thing that may get us through the present. The album gives no answers: it proceeds as if music can be open ended about even this. In the hurried rush up to the release of the album, in the teeth of the protests in Ferguson, D’Angelo is said to have been fretting on how the album was too tightly constructed.
He need not have fretted too much, because one of the pleasures of the album is that it is so complex, fraught, and layered, despite just how completely wild, completely free, it sounds. Everything in the music attests to the idea that dreamy textures, elaborations and commentaries of which it is composed can only coexist in a rich and varied texture, painstakingly put together using (the liner notes say) nearly all analog equipment. The album traverses a huge amount of musical space: beginning with its opening Hendrixy feedback on “Ain’t That Easy,” it moves into the hambone ragtime of “Sugah Daddy,” the flamenco guitar of “Really Love,” passes through the deep spacey funk of “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” and ends up in the spiritual reverberations of the closing number, “Another Life.” This is a long way to travel—too long for some critics, like Robert Christgau—but it also makes the album an open-ended business, producing open-ended sounds.
The vocals on this album are where questions arise most, however. Exquisitely coordinated and harmonized, they also do the most work of blurring lines, creating the album’s experimental atmosphere. D’Angelo has always enjoyed singing with accompaniment. Early on, on Brown Sugar, it was mostly women, in the style of much hip-hop at the time. On Voodoo, it was himself in layered harmonies, or interspersed with guests. Here, it is other men (and a few women), his band members, and this collective voice this produces is unlike all the others. From the first line of “Ain’t That Easy,” we hear a diverse and almost motley assortment of singers, all with radically different pitches, all with radically different personalities, all at once. The effect is to blur the edges of the lyrics: the voices don’t form a harmony so much as gradate a single utterance, forming a stream of song and sung words. Furthermore D’Angelo himself doesn’t have as much recourse to his own distinctive falsetto crooning: he’s much more willing to mumble, change pitch abruptly and awkwardly, change everything, in fact, and inhabit other moods, statements—sometimes different songs. The result is to undermine completely the figure of D’Angelo as the sexy solo poet, the talented maestro leading a faceless set of strings in “Cruisin,” his 1995 hit. The lyricism is collective, almost disturbingly so, when different voices seem to emerge from one. It is all tightly controlled, tightly managed, and yet we get the sense that what we are listening to is less a clear set of statements, views, and opinions, and more of a dialogue and debate, an unfolding of a choral self-interrogation about the nature of speaking up and speaking out as a black artist, as black artists. What we witness is a kind of community—in all its similarity and difference, its wild, seemingly unfocused energy.
Seemingly—because this is also a community of voices clearly on the move as one. The first song, “Ain’t That Easy,” is, like many of the tracks, a love song which is also a dialogue with the listener’s conscience. It asks a lover to follow him on a journey, and it asks the listener to do the same: “Take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside / Let your days slip away come with me and ride…” But it doesn’t plead or beg, so much as show this temptation to be as inevitable as a historical force: “You can’t leave me… Just stay, when I want you to stay… You need the comfort of my loving.” The title—also the main refrain, “It ain’t that easy / To walk away”—is stating a reality, confronting its interlocutor with some harsh facts: though it’s tempting to leave, though it’s tempting not to keep on marching forward, it ain’t that easy to give up, to disassociate yourself. The situation this puts us in is embattled: to leave, to put the album down, to not listen, to not think, to refuse to ask questions… this is not just to walk away into some safe space. There is no safe space. Non-involvement is itself a kind of involvement; you’re committed even if you are non-committal, perhaps precisely then. It’s this fact which every voice seems to acknowledge on the album, and that makes them march in step, even in their independence from each other. D’Angelo is explicit about this in his explanation of the title of the album: he does not want to suggest he sings as a leader. “Some will jump to the conclusion that I’m calling myself a Black Messiah,” D’Angelo says in the liner notes. “For me, the title is about all of us. It’s about the world…. Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”
Of course this is wonderfully vague. “Collectively, we are all that leader,” can mean that all of us, each of us individually, is a leader; it can mean that when we are together, collectively, we are all the same leader, the leader D’Angelo also says we all can “aspire to be;” it can mean, most confusingly, that we are all leaders, but only when we are together, that forming a mass together turns us into leaders. It is unclear what exact dynamics of group action the album has in mind. It’s unclear also why D’Angelo would invoke such a powerful image of a leader in the first place, if he is just going to turn around and deny its importance, and himself strenuously refuse to even play at the role. Sasha Frere-Jones, reviewing the album in the New Yorker, wonders whether D’Angelo is actually just afraid to affirm that he himself is the Black Messiah, and hearkens back to a time when Marvin Gaye didn’t bat an eye before he self-titled an album Black Moses. He suspects that what is keeping D’Angelo from personally avowing the image he wants the album to evoke is something like doubt, shame, even perhaps cowardice, and keeps comparing his sensibilities to those of Prince, who seems so free, so affirming of himself by contrast.
Then again, D’Angelo seems to entertain a different, more uncertain sense of political action than we may be familiar with: one where the feeling of hope matters more than the person it is embodied in, where the words “Black Messiah” themselves can signify “a feeling” first and foremost, and only after an image, an identity. And the album, indeed, does not so much conjure up some clear image of the Black Messiah, so much as try to revive a general sense that there could be one. The title may not be about finding another leader, but about taking part again in the messianic hope itself, in whatever form that may take. And it may take strange ones: he quotes Kalid Abdul Muhammad undermining the idea of “some blond-haired, blue eyed, pale-skinned, buttermilk complexion cracker Christ…” There is a thrill in this, a sense of possibility. Being any more certain about who exactly he is seems, to D’Angelo, to confine our political sentiments to tired, worn out expressions, or to a mere empty style—which is what, we sense, Prince on the cover of Controversy must look like to him. Finding out what identity of a leader is most effective to bring about change, and embodying that change oneself, using a clear, univocal voice, hoping it would actually produce change—the entire saga of President Obama has seemed to have called that model of politics into question for D’Angelo. “Shut your mouth off and focus on what you feel inside,” he says in “Ain’t That Easy,” and the line could be directed precisely at the President. Meanwhile, every voice on the album strives, paradoxically, to do precisely that. It isn’t so much who speaks of hope, or whether indeed it is a well-founded hope that we speak about. What seems urgent to D’Angelo is being part of the movement, part of a quest, part of a questioning.