by Yohana Desta
Some messiahs take their time.
It took 14 years, but D’Angelo’s third album, Black Messiah, finally landed on Dec. 15. And its timing is impeccable.
The politically charged record dropped in the middle of unrest over police brutality, particularly the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Activists have led street-sweeping protests, calling for reform against decades of minority deaths at the hands of cops. Crowds chanting “Black lives matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” have shut down major highways and bridges, disrupting everyday life.
This is why, after years of waiting around, D’Angelo rushed to release the record. What makes it so effective is its deliberate purpose — a protest album, not just a single dedicated to the unrest.
Like the movement itself, Black Messiah was lying dormant, catalyzed by an event in Ferguson that changed an entire city, a state, a country.
Historically, growing movements like this often have a song activists can cling to, the perfect anthem to lend sonic vibrance to the cause. In 1964, there was Nina Simone, who released “Mississippi Goddam” after the assassination of civil rights leader Medger Evers. That same year saw Bob Dylan release the iconic “The Times They Are A-Changin'” as a cry of support for the Civil Rights Movement.
As long as there has been civil unrest, there have been musicians ready to lend a voice to the cause. This year alone, many artists, including J. Cole and Alicia Keys, have released impassioned protest songs in the wake of the Garner and Brown deaths.
Powerful though they are, none has created the same impact as Black Messiah, the celebrated third album from R&B’s prodigal son.
Fourteen years ago, a cornrowed D’Angelo was the toast of R&B. He had released two sumptuous neo-soul albums — Brown Sugar in 1995 and Voodoo in 2000. The latter took him from underground wunderkind to mainstream success story, particularly for the intimate “(Untitled) How Does It Feel” music video, where the buff, nearly naked singer pouted and crooned.
But something snapped after that video. D’Angelo — a seriously soulful singer in the vein of Marvin Gaye — became a sex symbol, a status he despised. And so he started to retreat from public life, falling prey to drug addiction, recording songs here and there for a third album that started to seem more and more chimerical.
Throughout the next decade and a half, there were failed rehab stints, an arrest and a revealing mugshot of a much-heavier man, which spread like wildfire across the Internet.
Things didn’t look promising for that third album. But then Ferguson happened.
In an interview with The New York Times, D’Angelo’s manager Kevin Liles said the singer called him after the grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed black teen Michael Brown in August. D’Angelo kept saying, “Do you believe this?” Later, the singer told his tour manager, Alan Leeds, “The only way I do speak out is through music. I want to speak out.” And so he did.
Black Messiah materialized, available for download. And it’s already on track to sell 100,000 copies in its first week, garnering nearly perfect reviews.
A booklet released at the album’s listening party explained the meaning behind the title:
“It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them.”
Lyrically, it’s every bit a protest album one could hope for, an answer to recent disillusionment about a perceived lack of protest music.
For example, on Dec. 4, Roots drummer and all-around music expert Questlove (who actually produced Voodoo) penned a lengthy call to action on Instagram, writing: “I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in … I really apply this challenge to ALL artists. We need new Dylans. New Public Enemys. New Simones.”
Actor Samuel L. Jackson took it one step further, posting a Facebook video of himself singing a protest song which contains the lyrics: “I can hear my neighbor cryin’ ‘I can’t breathe’ / Now I’m in the struggle and I can’t leave / Callin’ out the violence of the racist police.” He then implored other celebrities to post videos of themselves singing the song.
Those moves sparked up conversation, but no artist has responded to the calls quite like D’Angelo.
Not every song on the album is political. It starts with a love song (“Ain’t That Easy”) and also ends with a love song (“Another Life”) — but the tracks in between are the meat of D’Angelo’s message.
“It’s an album that explores liberation and protest, and that, I think, is its power,” DeRay McKesson, a Ferguson activist who’s been curating protest newsletters on the site This Is the Movement, tells Mashable.
With a Twitter following of about 50,000, McKesson has kept outsiders informed on daily life in the racially torn city. And he’s been raving about Black Messiah.
“1000 Deaths” is the battle cry, the affirmation that going headfirst into this war with courage is vital: “I can’t believe I can’t get over my fear / They’re gonna send me over the hill / Ah, the moment of truth is near.” D’Angelo later paraphrases Shakespeare, singing that “a coward dies a thousand times / but a soldier only dies just once.”
Perhaps the most overtly political track, “The Charade” gives historical context to the pain and suffering of black people in America, with gut-punching references to the recent deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
D’Angelo sings, “All we wanted was a chance to talk / ‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk / Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked / Revealing at the end of the day, the charade.”
The jazzy track “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” featuring wavy electric guitar trills, summons a laissez-faire spirit. It’s only when you dig into D’Angelo’s breathy falsettos that you absorb the song’s deeper message: “Tragedy flows unbound and there’s no place to run / Till it’s done / Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon / Where do we belong?”
“You get this whole set of teaching songs, but he does it in a way that sounds like hip-hop, so it’s catchy,” McKesson says. “He’s reclaiming hip-hop as a sign of protest.”
McKesson’s favorite song is “Betray My Heart,” which includes the lines, “And if ever that you feel / That my love is not sincere / I will never betray my heart.” He calls it an “unapologetic ode to love … For us in the struggle it’s about blackness and justice.”
“When I think about the songs as a whole, I think they do something so beautifully disruptive,” he says. “He is speaking to my spirit.”
Just as a messiah should.