Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone: A Look at “Black Messiah”

The surprise return of D’Angelo was one of the biggest stories in music last year, when after over a decade of silence that allowed wild rumors to flourish, he stunned everyone with the release of Black Messiah.  The album captivated fans and critics alike, with the former finding that the result was worth the wait and the latter frantically trying to rejigger their year-end lists to find a place for its inclusion.  During this time, we did our part in sharing news items about its release, and also highlighting especially worthwhile analysis and explanations for its significance.  However, we never offered our own assessment of the album during this time, and we wanted to provide an explanation why never wrote about this record that we’ve enjoyed.

Our aim here at Rust Is Just Right is to contribute something beyond the usual echo-chamber of ideas that make up most music publications, and contribute genuine insight and any expertise we may have.  To do this, we tend to write about subjects and genres with which we have more history and experience, which explains the focus we give to both rock music and to guitar, bass, and drums.  We realize how boring it can be for readers to read variations of the same stuff over and over again, so we challenge ourselves to explore different genres and expose ourselves to different ideas.  This allows us to avoid ruts both from a writing and musical perspective, and helps contribute to our own musical education, which we then hope to impart on our readers.  It’s a beautiful cycle.

If we were to do a review then of Black Messiah, then we wanted to be able to do so from a position of some authority, with the ability to offer original insights on the record.  However, after multiple listens, it was clear that our lack of familiarity with both D’Angelo (beyond a few cursory listens over the years) and with neo-soul in general would hinder our ability to make truly engaging analysis.  There were few hooks for us to grab hold, and while we felt there were several admirable aspects to the album, it was difficult for us to make any personal connections to it with our initial listens.  That said, it was easy to see how in a live setting D’Angelo could make the songs come alive.

We enjoyed how Black Messiah experimented with various soul and funk elements, like the subtle changes in rhythm in the electric “1000 Deaths”, which inverts and plays with straight and syncopated feels.  This is an album that needs to be cranked up to truly appreciate, with special attention paid to the low end, because the bass playing on Black Messiah is truly a marvel but has the potential to be lost in the mix if no precautions are taken.  Those points represent the extent of our insight, though; the lack of a lyric sheet makes that particular analysis difficult, and it’s clear that there are significant political and social themes that run through Black Messiah that would require more rigorous assessment than what I could periodically catch by ear.

So, consider this a recommendation, but we are unable to show more of the work that led us to that conclusion.  But who knows, maybe after another few months of listening we’ll be able to offer up a more cogent assessment.  At the very least, we’ll at least have a better foundation for discussing the next D’Angelo album–but hopefully we won’t have to wait fourteen years for that.

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