#25. D'Angelo and The Vanguard: Black Messiah
The fact that Black Messiah is on an aggregated list of the best albums of 2015 is a testament to how good it is, considering it didn’t even come out in 2015. Slated for a release last year, D’Angelo decided to release his album unexpectedly in the final hours of 2014, after many music publications had already published their “best of the year” lists.
With a title like Black Messiah, it made perfect sense for D’Angelo to release the album early in the wake of the events in Ferguson and the Grand Jury decision in the Eric Garner case. Racial tensions in the United States had reached a boil, and D’Angelo rose from his decade-and-a-half hiatus to provide a passionate voice for so many Americans who felt voiceless. The album functions as a powerful message of racial justice worthy of comparisons to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. It was soon adopted as an unofficial soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement because many of its lyrics poetically reiterate the movement’s message. “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk” D’angelo cries at the end of “The Charade,” a song that highlights the systematic oppression, degradation, and brutality that were omnipresent in 2015.
Musically, D’Angelo hasn’t lost a single drop of potency during his lengthy absence. Black Messiah packs just as much punch as his last album, 2000’s crown jewel of the Soulquarian movement Voodoo. Many of the same studio musicians also reprise their roles from Voodoo. Fellow Soulquarians Pino Palladino and Questlove lay down some of the tightest bass and drum grooves yet this century. D’Angelo and his band rival some of the great contemporary jazz artists in their ability to improvise fills and licks that seamlessly fit the funk and lock in better than any premeditated arrangement could. “Really Love” is one of the funkiest love songs in recent memory. Each instrument ebbs and flows to complement one another, creating a record that is unwaveringly locked into a groove, but also organic and amorphous. The flamenco guitar will dart into the foreground, then back away so D’Angelo’s silky voice can whisper, “I’m in really love with you.” An electric piano might jab a chord, then immediately get swallowed by a cresting string section. Verses and choruses blend together, and D’Angelo’s layered vocals begin to feel like just another instrument in the syrupy ocean of sound.
Black Messiah is an important album. It’s more than just the funkiest album on the block. It’s more than a bundle of fantastic songwriting. And it’s more than a reunion of some of the best studio musicians around. It’s a soulful album, but more importantly it’s an album with a soul. Between the fat, stoic bass of Palladino and the Dilla-esque behind-the-beat drumming of Questlove on “The Prayer,” D’Angelo sings, “I believe that someday we will rise.” It’s a distillation of the entire album’s message of hope and resilience, and it’s this optimism that makes D'Angelo’s message all the more powerful.