Top 3 Best Songs on D'Angelo's 'Black Messiah'

D'Angelo's first album since 'Voodoo' enters the world. We waited nearly 15 years. It was worth it.
D'Angelo © Drew Gurian / Red Bull Content Pool
By Elliott Sharp

It finally happened.

‘Black Messiah,’ the new album by D’Angelo, has arrived.

D'Angelo broke the silence in May when he spoke at the Brooklyn Museum during Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York. During the public lecture, he only alluded to the mysterious album he’s been working on for the past 14 years, the super-highly-anticipated follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning masterpiece, ‘Voodoo.’ He told us about his studio, which he called “the cave.” And he said the new songs would be “louder” and “heavier” and have “more guitars” than ‘Voodoo.’ But he didn’t allow us to hear any of the tracks, and he didn’t name a release date. He left us in the dark, with more questions than answers.

Then, late last week, news of D’Angelo’s new album blew up the Internet. A ‘Black Messiah’ trailer surfaced (watch below). A photo of a ‘Black Messiah’ CD case hit Twitter. Cryptic posters appeared in New York. Then, yesterday, we got our first taste of the new album when D’Angelo shared lead single ‘Sugah Daddy’ through Red Bull’s #20Before15 website. (All 1,000 downloads vanished quickly, but you can listen to the song here.)

Hours after ‘Sugah Daddy’ dropped, there was a listening party in New York, at Dream Hotel, for ‘Black Messiah.’ Questlove was there. Spike Lee was there. A track list surfaced. A lyrics sheet was distributed. People listened. Then it was officially announced: ‘Black Messiah’ would be released via iTunes at midnight, and then it really was released via iTunes at midnight! And now it is available on Spotify. And now we are all listening to it. (Will there be vinyl? There must be vinyl.)

Yes. It’s all very true. D’Angelo has finally released ‘Black Messiah,’ his third studio album. It is credited to him and his band, The Vanguard, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, The Roots’ Questlove, Parliament-Funkadelic’s Kendra Foster, bassist Pino Palladino and drummer James Gadson are included among the credits.

There has been so much hype and anticipation and “genius” discourse and mystery surrounding this new D’Angelo project for so long it is foolish to make any quick judgments about ‘Black Messiah.’ Also, it is a complex album, musically, conceptually, lyrically, historically, politically. It will require some time and some reflection to properly assess, and then more time and more reflection.

But humans are endlessly foolish and so, after listening to the album more than a few times (on laptop speakers, on real speakers, on headphones, sitting down, standing up), we have created a list of the three best songs on ‘Black Messiah.’ Maybe tomorrow this ranking will change, and maybe the songs ranked will be different songs, too. And then at some other future point, everything will change again, and then again. But right here, right now, these are the three best songs on ‘Black Messiah.’

3. 'Really Love'

It begins with a thunderous contrabass rumble and drone, and then a gorgeous string section floats in as, faintly, a woman says something in Spanish. Then, an acoustic guitar arrives with a flamenco riff and flourishes. And then a beat, and the guitar leads the way, but now it sounds jazzier. (D'Angelo said there'd be more guitar, and he'd be playing it — is this him in flamenco-jazz mode? Wow! For more guitar standout moments, listen to the electric solos at the end of '1000 Deaths' and 'Prayer,' which also contains a mind-blowing Questlove beat.) The open spaces on 'Really Love,' when compared to thicker, meatier tracks like '1000 Deaths' and 'Charade,' allow us to better hear D'Angelo's intricate arrangements (pay attention to those woodwinds). And, of course, D'Angelo's inimitable voice, which truly spreads its wings and ascends over this instrumental. A beautiful love song.

2. 'Sugah Daddy'

I listened to this song about 20 times yesterday, about 8 times today, and each time I heard it, something new happened. It's a joyous tune with a brilliant hand-slap and clap beat. The piano lines flow and bounce. D'Angelo also seriously shows off his vocal range here, switching voices and keys effortlessly, following that rambling, shifting piano across the track. It's a weird song too! Those vanishing horns! That guitar riff! D'Angelo's howls and, damn: THAT FALSETTO! Wonderfully idiosyncratic and original, taking old forms, chopping them up, and doing something fresh with them. All the while, 'Sugah Daddy' sounds more like a 'Voodoo' song than anyting else on 'Black Messiah.' But also completely new. How does he do that?

1. 'Another Life'

The last song on 'Black Messiah.' Phew, what a finale it is! Pay close attention to the subtle dialogue between the piano, guitar and what may or may not be a sitar. Oh, and that bass line. It has a modern jazz vibe, with the piano, sparkling up front, taking the lead, with bright melodic twists and turns. It's an overall dreamy experience, with D'Angelo singing about love, past, present, future, real, imagined. 'Black Messiah' is an often strange album — the noise of '1000 Deaths,' the WTF beat on 'Prayer,' the flamenco-plus-orchestra sound of 'Really Love,' the wild voice shifts on 'Sugah Daddy' — but the album ends here, with the best, most straight-ahead tune from the collection. But, still, D'Angelo has written himself all over it. He's written, deeply, into every song on 'Black Messiah,' his own unique musical DNA. Nobody else could've made this song; nobody else could've made this album. When 'Another Life' plays, it means 'Black Messiah' is finished, and that means it's time to play it again, and we'll likely hear something new each and every time, as if it has just begun. This is why we waited nearly 15 years. It was well worth it.

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