The 41 year old musician, Michael “D’Angelo” Archer has had one hell of a career. Releasing an acclaimed debut album in the 90s, a dazzling sophomore album in the beginning of the new millennium, and then nothing, until a few months ago. His surprise third album, Black Messiah came out last December to the surprise of many on iTunes, followed by a physical release. Originally planned to be released sometime later this year, D’Angelo was affected by the national unrest around the unprosecuted police officers involved in shootings in both Ferguson, Missouri and New York City. He moved the release of the album to speak to the times. Developed over a series of years, the release was welcomed by fans and critics alike. Landing on several critics’ end-of-the-year lists with only two weeks remaining, the album will most expectantly land on lists for 2015 too. Many are in the hopes that this is just the beginning of a new era for the talented multi-instrumentalist, producer, and multi-genre singer that is D’Angelo.
Only 21 when he released his first album, Brown Sugar, back in 1995, D’Angelo was different from the other R&B artists of the time. Writing every song himself and playing every instrument, D’Angelo deterred from predominantly using producers, leaving the production to himself. His ability to play the drums, saxophone, guitar, bass, and keyboards would all come to great use throughout the album’s production. Providing commercial visibility for the neo-soul movement of the 90s and issuing a new creatively-dormant R&B scene, he would be followed by the likes of Maxwell, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill. Up against the contemporary R&B of the decade with Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey, there wasn’t anything else like D’Angelo at the time.
His much delayed follow-up, Voodoo, finally saw light during the first month of 2000. Dubbed by critics as a masterpiece, the album was a commercial hit. Debuting at number 1 on the billboard charts and remaining on them for 33 weeks, it would go on to win a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. Along with the album, D’Angelo released the music video for his single, Untitled (How Does It Feel) that would slowly but surely lead to his unexpected demise.
Completely shirtless, the music video showed D’Angelo singing directly to viewer. Upon its debut Billboard wrote about the music video, writing that, “…it’s pure sexuality. D’Angelo, muscularly cut and glistening, is shot from the hips up, naked, with just enough shown to prompt a slow burning desire in most any woman who sees it. The video alone could make the song one of the biggest of the coming year”.
In a matter of a few months, D’Angelo, normally known as an introvert was cast as a sex symbol with his newly put on muscles. It wasn’t long until his body started overshadowing his career.
While on the tour for Voodoo, attendees would scream during his performances to take off his shirt. Often giving into the audience, he resented being reduced to a body instead of being an artist. With women throwing money on the stage, it didn’t take long for D’Angelo that long to realize he had become a pin-up. While the tour was critically and commercially successful, it marked the fall of D’Angelo.
Finding solace in drugs and alcohol, D’Angelo developed a serious substance problem. By 2005, D’Angelo had put on a serious amount of weight and was hardly recognizable. Suffering a serious car accident during the same year, high on cocaine and drunk he was ejected from his car breaking all of his ribs on his left side. In the following years, he would go on to make court appearances for charges of Marijuana possession, drunk-driving, disturbing the peace, and carrying a concealed weapon. While there was always rumors that he was in the studio and confirmations that he would release a new album every following years, ten years would pass by without any new material. Questlove of the Roots (and producer at Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio where D’Angelo made his music), spoke up to defend D’Angelo.
“At the same time, I say to myself, ‘How can I scream someone’s genius if they hardly have any work to show for it?’ Then again, the last work he did was so powerful that it’s lasted 10 years,” Questlove said. In addition he would go onto to talking about D’Angelo’s internal struggles. “More than just the video, we noticed early that all of the geniuses we admired have had maybe a ten-year run before death or, you know, the Poconos. It rendered D paralyzed. He said he fears the responsibility and the power that comes with it. But I think what he fears most is the isolation”—the kind that fame brings,” Questlove stated.
A decade later and any sense of hope towards a new release seemed impossible. Until, out of the blue, D’Angelo announced he would be going back on tour in 2012. While his earliest of tours mostly consisted of singing covers and were seen as a shadow of his formal self, over time he started to unveil new material and went back to old favorites. By 2013, fans and critics were speculating the release of a new album in the soon future. They weren’t far off.
During a listening party for Black Messiah, a few days before its release, a handout given to listeners spoke to the album’s title. “Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. It can easily be misunderstood. Many will think it’s about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I’m calling myself a Black Messiah. For me, the title is about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.”
Now having recently performed on SNL and just recently finishing his concerts with 15 minute renditions of Untitled (How Does It Feel), D’Angelo is truly back. With his old-school minimalism, sweet falsetto voice, and funk bassline, the skilled singer and multi-instrumentalist has been reborn.
Just as Voodoo is known for its timelessness and uncommon song structure that easily allows multiple listens and interpretations, Black Messiah will be known for the same. Have one listen to from Ain’t That Easy all the way to Another Life and there really isn’t anyone else out there like D’Angelo. Still standing today and making music, D’Angelo could have never chosen a better time to come back. As he questions the issues of the world with Till It’s Done (Tutu), one thing is certain.
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon
Where do we belong? Where do we come from?
Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon
Till it’s done
For D’Angelo it’s only the start of a new beginning to discover the answer to these questions and more.