Review #395: Black Messiah, D’Angelo and the Vanguard

Karla Clifton
3 min readMay 31, 2023

#395: Black Messiah, D’Angelo and the Vanguard

D’Angelo has three studio albums, and all of them made the RS 500 list. But while there was five years between his debut and his groundbreaking sophomore album, there was fourteen long ones between Voodoo and Black Messiah. What was D’Angelo up to?

Turns out, D’Angelo wasn’t entirely thrilled with the nature of Voodoo’s success. The video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” saw a ripped, mostly-naked D’Angelo crooning, licking his lips, and generally showing off. He then learned a lesson that most girls, unfortunately, learn very young: looking hot means you get a lot less respect. The video attracted a crowd that mostly appreciated him for his physique, instead of his musicality, which reportedly led to him feeling rightfully objectified. So D’Angelo dealt with the intense scrutiny via drink and drugs, and in 2005 was arrested for possession of pot and cocaine. One of his mugshots went viral, and obviously, he no longer cut the muscle-bound, well-groomed figure from the notorious music video. And, shocker, people were mean. All this focus on D’Angelo’s physicality clearly had an effect on him: in “Back to the Future (Part I),” he sings: If you’re wondering about the shape I’m in/ I hope it ain’t my abdomen that you’re referring to.

It makes me so sad for him, because D’Angelo speaks a musical language that no one else does. Black Messiah, produced a decade and a half after what people consider to be his prime, is proof. “The Vanguard” is just the catchall title he gives to his backing band, which includes Questlove (also known as ?uestlove) on percussion. Questlove talked about D’Angelo’s ingenuity: “One song we worked on … has this trombone patch that he re-EQ’d and then put through an envelope filter and then added a vibraphone noise on top and made a whole new patch out of it. He’s the only person I know that [does that].”

I’ve seen this album described as “prog-soul,” and I think that’s perfect. If TOOL and Stevie Wonder had a baby, it would sound like this. There’s fuzzy heavy metal-style guitar on tracks like “Ain’t That Easy” and “The Charade.” There are some patched-up takes on classic-style soul — see “Sugah Daddy” and “Really Love,” with their sassy piano riffs and samples from Curtis Mayfield’s debut. Then there are his takes on the soul-spiritual. “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” asks the real questions (Where do we belong? Where do we come from?) while D’Angelo sings in his best Grimes imitation. “Prayer” is a bass-and-synth take on the Lord’s prayer.

D’Angelo may have rejected his sex symbol status, but he didn’t do away with heartthrob songs entirely. His lyrics are tender and unexpected — “Betray My Heart” declares that if he cheated, it would be a betrayal of his own nature, and “The Door” begs his not-very-nice lover not to close the door on their relationship completely. Meanwhile, “Another Life” feels like his answer to Erykah Badu’s “Next Lifetime.”

D’Angelo intended to release this record in 2015, but after 2014 unfolded the way it did (the riots in Ferguson, MO; the killing of Eric Garner) he opted to release it early. “1000 Deaths,” which opens with an excerpt of Black Panther documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, provides the context for the title. When I say Jesus, … I’m talking about the Jesus of the Bible, with hair like lamb’s wool. That about sums it all up — it’s a progression and a celebration, far ahead of its time and still full of callbacks.

Fourteen years between albums two and three? We’ve only got five years until the next, then. Can’t wait to see what he has to say.

Final Note: This album isn’t so deathly serious that it can’t crack a joke. Case in point — there’s a reprise called “Back to the Future (Part II).”

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