Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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D'Angelo and the Vanguard

  • Black Messiah [RCA, 2014] A-

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Black Messiah [RCA, 2014]
Comparisons to Sly's There's a Riot Goin' On pertain--like that end-of-year funk bombshell, this music is disruptive, a little forbidding. But a-b the two albums and recall or discover how much cleaner music was supposed to sound in 1971. Proudly antidigital though he may be, D'Angelo knows damn well that he's competing in a funk soundscape epitomized for the nonce by the dense computerized pastiche of Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy--a soundscape in which gearhead murk and gorgeous complexity coexist a tweak or two apart. His response, almost as far from Voodoo as Riot was from Stand!, is a thick, sui generis jazz-funk in which Questlove and Pino Palladino avant around with the kind of bottom they already change up as flexibly as anyone in the pop sphere while guitarist Isaiah Sharkey and horn maestro Roy Hargrove interject from the jazz side. Instrumentally, it's more virtuosic, more surprising, more conceptual, and more physical than Riot's "Africa" jams. But D'Angelo isn't just being conceptual when he buries his murmurs, moans, pleas, regrets, and imprecations so deep in the mix that the words are indecipherable, because not a song here stands as tall as "Family Affair," "Just Like a Baby," or "You Caught Me Smilin'." Which is to say that the talk about how profoundly D'Angelo articulates his racial awareness and romantic struggle is mostly guff, although both are certainly present. I'm very glad this album finally came. But I also very much hope there are more. Because it's distinctly possible that he has more to tell us. A-