Musical morality tales don’t come more wrenching or melodramatic than the rise, fall and near death of r’n’b star, D’Angelo. Through the second half of the 1990s, his drowsily seductive voice, combined with almost supernatural abilities as a marshaller of beats, appeared to herald a new force in r’n’b. But the artist, born Michael Eugene Archer, vanished from view in 2000, and, amid rumours of alcohol and drug issues, and a car crash, looked destined to fade into legend.
Several days ago, with little aplomb, the tragic story acquired an uplifting coda as D’Angelo, now 40, put out his first new music in 14 years. The trigger, it was suggested, was an upsurge of protests against alleged police strong-handedness of young black men in the US. Black Messiah had been pencilled-in for a more conventional release in 2015, but, seeking to tap into the anger sweeping African-American communities, D’Angelo reportedly pulled all-nighters so the record could come out now.
Far from self-aggrandising, the title comes from a humble place: ‘Black Messiah’ refers to D’Angelo’s hope that all African-Americans can see themselves as saviours: in their own lives and in the lives of those around them. The positive message is, admittedly, at odds with the often murkily propulsive music, in which sinuous grooves interlock in brain-befuddling complexity.
For straight-up political commentary, the lynchpin is probably ‘The Charade’ (“All we wanted was a chance to talk/ Stead,we only got outlined in chalk”). Elsewhere, epic rhymes combine with D’Angelo’s labyrinthine guitar style, his throaty voice suggesting a more muscular, less self-absorbed Prince. A fortnight from the end of 2014, D’Angelo may justifiably claim to have released one of the stand-out records of the year.