Will The Real Black Messiah Please Stand Up


Black syncopated rhythm, African Tribal DNA is becoming a lost art. With each passing day, it’s more and more irrelevant. Not useful. Obsolete. And it’s sad. Being Black used to mean something. What was at one time a commodity is now a liability. Black people live through the drum, through song. Without the Blues, Black life means nothing. The Blues is our collective Black language. Developed out of our resistance to the global dehumanization of colored people, we established a new way to commune with our ancestry. Any freedoms we’ve been able to craft post-Columbus has been due to the music. And it’s through the music that any future salvation is to be found.

It used to be clear who was within the Black tradition and who wasn’t. The rhythmic code embedded in the music makes it apparent which artists are linked to the lineage. As we head deeper into the post-racial era, Blackness becomes less important and the tribal DNA within the music gets shoved to the side. This started happening at a faster rate within Black music post-integration, when musicians had a desire to assimilate into White culture to garner crossover appeal and acceptance by the mainstream.

The “Reverend” Milt Jackson prophesied years ago, “Ain’t But A Few Of Us Left.” He could see that fewer and fewer musicians were embodying the values that make Black music what it is. I feel that those of us who have a sound, who are soulful, who have a pocket, can swing, and who are funky, and can play the Blues have a greater responsibility than ever to represent those attributes in their music. Michael “D’Angelo” Archer is one of those cats. Though greatly influenced by UK soul musician, Omar, his first album Brown Sugar signaled an antidote to how commercial and syrupy R&B had become by the mid-’90s. What followed was a renaissance of young Black artists who championed and embraced the sounds of classic soul and funk records of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Their heroes were cats like Miles, Donald Byrd, Nina Simone, James Brown, Aretha, Hendrix, Roy Ayers, Marvin Gaye, Sly, Stevie Wonder, and Prince.

The aftermath seemed to spawn one artist after another: Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Sunshine Anderson, Jaguar Wright and many others. At the time, I wasn’t a big fan of Brown Sugar. I had more faith in the UK based artists like The Brand New Heavies. The moment I began to believe in R&B again was with Erykah’s Baduism. When I heard that, I was like, “Yes, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” My next moment of awakening was the duet of Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo doing “Nothing Even Matters.” It was also then when I began to reawaken to Hiphop. The album that did it for me was Fantastic Vol. 2, produced by the legendary beatmaker from Detroit, James Dewitt Yancey, then known as Jay Dee, now commonly referred to as “Dilla.” Also of note was another producer, Madlib who was doing important things with the group, Lootpack.

The culmination of all these elements led up to one of the most important and influential albums of the last 25 years, D’Angelo’s Voodoo. I will never forget where I was and how I felt the first moment I heard “Playa Playa” on the car stereo. I had never heard anything in my life that sounded like it. Many of us felt that way. The quarter note had once again been changed in Black American music and that has only happened a handful of times in the first century of recorded music. Louis Armstrong did it, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Ahmad Jamal, Miles Davis, James Brown, and Sly Stone. Though D’Angelo had the benefit of having the concept refined on his second album, a chief influence in the sound was Jay Dee. Jay Dee’s primary instrument of choice was an MPC. D’Angelo and his group adopted that sound for live instruments and changed the scope of how several generations of musicians would interpret the beat. In the 1920s and ’30s, Louis Armstrong had a way he could lay back and stretch over the beat to create the sonic illusion that he was manipulating the space-time continuum against the steady backdrop of the ensemble. But we hadn’t really heard a rhythm section apply that concept collectively until Voodoo. The second great Miles Davis Quintet (with Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams) experimented with metric modulations and time stretching, but what Dilla and D’Angelo were doing was in another orbit.

This was the Golden Age of what was known as Neo Soul, though most of the artists rejected that categorization, and understandably so. I was also a part of a generation of musicians that embraced tradition who were labeled “Young Lions,” a title which many of us shunned. A lot of us felt a kinship with the so-called Neo Soul artists. We were mostly Black 20, 30-something-year-old musicians who were the last generation of kids raised on their parents’ music — before the glorification and permeation of youth-centered thought in Pop culture. As a result of this simpatico, many of us worked together. Mark Whitfield, Larry Grenadier, Charlie Hunter, Christian McBride and Roy Hargrove worked with D’Angelo. Karriem Riggins worked with Erykah and Common. I was doing stuff with Jill Scott, Common, and Will Downing. It was a very fertile and promising period in Black music. We were restoring and rebuilding the chasm in Black music that decades of “Jazz” destroyed. We were picking up where CTI records and cats like Freddie Hubbard and George Benson left off. We were shaking off the shackles of the purist mentality adopted and perpetuated by the likes of Wynton, and now Branford Marsalis. It’s interesting that Branford has become so conservative in his old age as he was amongst the first to embrace this concept by his work with Miles Davis on Decoy, Sting, Spike Lee, The Grateful Dead, Shanice, and his electric band, Buckshot LeFonque.

Voodoo was a commercial and critical success as an album, but the tour proved to be quite challenging, largely due to D’Angelo’s growing appeal as a sex symbol. His video for “Untitled” had women across the globe wanting D to take it off as he had done on screen. I won’t get deep into this, mostly because I don’t know the details and it’s none of my business. What I do know is that D’Angelo took a long hiatus. And the only thing we would hear about him was either through Questlove or some media scandal. Over the years we’d hear rumors on a solo project from D’Angelo with an Internet leak of a track here and there. With several release dates given and no album ultimately delivered, it looked less likely with each passing year that another D’Angelo album would ever see an official release.

In the post-Voodoo era, many of the so-called young lions who had only done acoustic albums began electric experiments. I had Sonic Trance, Roy Hargrove had the RH Factor, Joshua Redman had Elastic, and Christian McBride had the CMB. Made sense since we grew up in the era when Hiphop was born and we were reared during the Golden Age of R&B. We had all had our lives changed by Michael Jackson’s moonwalk from the legendary Motown 25 concert. Most of us also witnessed Wynton Marsalis on the 1984 Grammys be the first artist to get awards in both Jazz and Classical categories. He let us know it was possible to have a viable career playing straight-ahead acoustic music.

Fast-forward to 2014… It’s finally here and it’s called “Black Messiah.” When I first heard the title it struck me because my favorite Cannonball Adderley album is The Black Messiah, so I was curious. Will it be a tribute to Cannonball? Is the title track a cover of the George Duke tune of the same name? As I listened I found no overt references to Cannonball or Duke whatsoever, nor did I see any in the liner notes. Jive, but okay.

Took 14 years to make 12 songs. Had to sit through 11 of them to get to one classic. Not really funky, overall. Not worth the hold ups. Many of my contemporaries disagree, but I am extremely disappointed in this album. I had a feeling I would be and was, quite honestly, predisposed to disliking the album before its release. With all the false alarms, stops and starts, I began to question if he would be able to capture the same magic as he had on Voodoo. 14 years out of the game is a long time, and unlike riding a bike, you can lose your gifts and talents if you don’t use them. I’m not saying he’s lost it, but the things that made him such a force 14 years ago are not apparent on this album.

I have a problem with these artists either making mediocre albums or living off of the reputation of one or two albums made decades ago, and I’m not sure what’s worse. Whereas Stevie Wonder and Prince have continued to give us new material, neither has given us a great album in 25 years. Both artists have become parodies of themselves. Both Stevie and Prince began sounding like bad versions of people they influenced, and from repeated listens of Black Messiah, D’Angelo has now joined their ranks.

Many of my colleagues who were making electric albums have now gone back to jazz, and by some strange twist of fate, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah is a jazz album. For all the hype Questlove made about how innovative and groundbreaking this album was supposed to be, I find it to be D’Angelo’s most derivative work to date. There’s nothing on the album that doesn’t sound like something else. In fact, Black Messiah sounds like a bad version of Bilal’s Love Surreal. I don’t remember folks giving this amount of love to Bilal when it was a far more creative effort than D’Angelo’s latest. Meanwhile, an artist like Van Hunt has been in the trenches giving us album after album of great music. His album Popular, which was deep-sixed by Blue Note is a little known gem that is every bit as great as Voodoo. While folks have been waiting 14 years for one guy to do an album, other cats have been busting their asses giving us great music the whole while.

D’Angelo gets to be the deadbeat dad who gets all the love by showing up bearing gifts at Christmas every couple of years, while mom is busting her ass every day taking care of you and you ungrateful children could give a shit. I don’t get why it’s acceptable for him to take 14 years to deliver this okay album. And okay for him is so not okay. I expect more from what was at one time one of the most soulful, grooving multi-instrumentalists on the scene. And with a title like Black Messiah, I want nothing short of my mind blown.

Dude had 14 years to make it, a crew of the best musicians and engineers, and limitless studio time and after all of the hullabaloo it’s not that funky. How many hungry Black mouths could be fed with the studio time he’s squandered over the past decade? Such a waste of resources. He needs to be held to a higher standard of excellence. I guess when you cock tease your fans for 14 years, the least effort makes them nut in their bloomers. It reminds me of that skit Eddie Murphy did in Raw about waiting for pussy so long makes you think it’s the best pussy ever when you finally get it is akin to a hungry man thinking a cracker is a gourmet meal.

A central rhythmic theme throughout the album is the heavy four-on-the-floor that was a trademark of Sly’s work with The Family Stone. The problem with it on Black Messiah is that when Sly did it there was an undercurrent of syncopated ghost notes that made it groove. The way the quarter note is presented here, it’s subdivided by straight eights, which makes it come off stiff. Sounds like the typical non-swinging jazz album of today. Ironically, the message is Black Power, but the Black part is overshadowed by a barrage of sterile sixteenth notes. This sets the tone for the first quarter of the album — “Ain’t That Easy,” “The Charade” (which sounds like a nod to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”) and “1000 Deaths.” And the same holds true for virtually every tune on the album.

When we do get to the first tune with a funk feel in “Sugah Daddy,” the pulse is delivered in a cutesy and corny way. It’s almost like I can see Betty Boop doing Jazz Hands to this. I don’t get it. Why? D had one of the dopest pockets in the business. Let the unfunky people hide behind wack rhythms. I dug this tune in the live versions, so I’m inclined to believe it’s not the material itself, but perhaps the album suffers from over production. Maybe it’s been nursed way too much to be organic. Whatever it is makes it not as sexy as people are claiming it to be. Voodoo made me want to fuck. I’m not saying he should revel in the past, but an emphasis on pocket would have been nice. Like what they did on the vamp out of “Till It’s Done,” but the shit only lasts a few seconds before it fades out. The strongest groove on the album, done too quickly, in my opinion.

A lot of folks are complaining about not being able to understand lyrics. It doesn’t bother me at all. And if you’re familiar with his work, it’s been a signature of his from jump. Makes sense as many of his idols — like James Brown and Marvin Gaye — mumbled through many records. I just wish more of that grit and negroidery was imbued in the urgency of the rhythm instruments. The lilt is often forced and contrived, even when they’re laying back. Like on “Betray My Heart,” if the drummer had just played the cross-stick flam on the backbeats instead of on all 4 it would have felt more danceable. Yes, it’s obvious, but some things don’t need to be innovative.

I also think the vocal effects, and effects at large, are overdone. It’s like he’s singing through a toy walkie-talkie the whole time. If you do it to all the instruments, all the time, on every track, it ceases to be an effect and becomes overkill. A great meal with too much salt is inedible.

And there is a huge Rock component throughout the album I take issue with. I can’t get with Black people who play Rock. Rock is the White appropriation of the Blues. The Blues didn’t need another name. There is no need to mimic the voice of the oppressor back to him.

The last tune, “Another Life,” is the most soulful song by far. Though reminiscent of “Shoot ‘Em Up Movies,” by The Deele and Rick James’ “Ebony Eyes,” it’s what I expect to hear a D’Angelo record sound like in 2014. Now if he could have just started the album here and went beyond, then we would’ve heard something. For a man to have reshaped the quarter note in Black music, he seems to have regressed into a ricky-tick style that is reminiscent of less sophisticated times.

He’s been out of the album business for a while and Black Messiah sounds like it. A lot has happened in music since he’s drifted off the scene. All of us weren’t waiting for him. Many continue to evolve. As he said in the liner notes, “Black Messiah is not one man. It is the feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”

Marvin Gaye wrote through the pain, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker… It’s what artists do. Sometimes you triumph. Sometimes you fall short. But you stay in the game.

I get why a lot of y’all think Black Messiah is a masterpiece. It ain’t because it’s great or you love it. It’s because you need something to believe in. It’s not because this album makes you want to dance or make love, and if it does, I shudder to think what type of spastic tango it elicits. You’ve been mindfucked for over a decade that this record would change your life, and now that it’s here you don’t care how it sounds. You’ve been deprived for 14 years and brainwashed to think you’re having the best sex of your life, but when the hype dies down, all you’ll be left with is a bunch of crackers.


— Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop

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