Back To Our Future: An Open Letter to D’Angelo

Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album. It can be easily 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.

It’s about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decided to make change happen. It’s not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them. Not every song on this album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not one man. It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.

—D’Angelo, Black Messiah, Liner Notes (2014)

For the longest time I contemplated writing D’Angelo a letter. It wasn’t going to be a real letter that I would put in the mailbox and send to Richmond, or New York City, or London or wherever the man might have vanished to. What I envisioned was something more like a James Baldwin essay, an open letter where the prose discovers something about the world, answers a set of questions posed by its very appearance. I wanted to write D’Angelo a letter from a region of my mind. But now in lieu of that lost letter to an uncertain future, I can address his prodigal return in the present.

If you never listened to Voodoo, or Brown Sugar, and didn’t spend a significant portion of your life thinking about your place in the world, sexually, racially, lyrically — that holy trinity of black music — then you won’t necessarily understand the overwrought emotion that the sudden unannounced appearance of the first new album by D’Angelo in 14 years might arouse. But there are a lot of folks out there who have been waiting, or forgot they were waiting for this moment, and for everyone else now is the perfect time to discover why people have been holding out hope for so long. 

 To situate things one has to recall that in a generation in which black music was defined (often in conflicting ways) by a dialectical tension between hip-hop and R&B, with myriad generational and intra-cultural implications, D’Angelo was a rare point of consensus. In the 1990s Brown Sugar was one of the few albums that fans of 2Pac and Toni Braxton could instantly agree on. And it went beyond the music. It was him — it was us. Maybe because he had the swagger of Pac without the rap sheet, this radiant self-possession, a slim cross on his chest, those neat cornrows and buttersoft leather jackets; and yet he could sing like Smokey Robinson, and carried about him everywhere the endearingly hushed softness of a choirboy. He was synthesis and expression, and Brown Sugar seemed to embody a set of collective fantasies that we were all having, but given the ruggedness — remember the ruggedness! — of the era, would never dare to express out loud. I’m talking about those of us who were caught out in that New Jack Swing moment when Teddy Riley somehow pulled everything together, and we thought — in a brief brightly colored MTV thought bubble — that we might actually get through the 90s with a smile, a hi-top fade, hammer pants and a keytar. When New Edition came through puberty as BBD, roller-rinks were hot, Brandy was down, Latifah was Queen, Lauryn was the most beautiful woman you had ever seen, Motown Philly was back again, Arsenio was on, and you made mixtapes recorded off FM radio, lovingly labeled in wildstyle Sharpie.

…Dear D,

What happened in that last decade of the millennium? So many things came together. So many things fell apart. Walter Benjamin, writing in the last days of his own life, prophesized that in the hour of danger the angel of history with the disaster of the past blowing in his wings like a trumpet would teach us how to look upon the past with the necessary perspective, “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Is that why we can’t let go of Pac, why we still think Tupac is alive somewhere, why his angel face still shows up on so many bodega corner walls, and t‑shirts, and in the gliding ministries of late night drives pointed in no particular direction as the high ruckus and swing low command of his voice fills the night with presence?…

Pac: our black Icarus, Negro Monte Cristo. A nation of millions could not hold him back. Icon, actor, ballet dancer, musician, poet, son of the revolution, soldier, hustler, comedian, sex symbol, sex offender, gangster, prisoner, gothic avenger, Patrick Henry Thug Lifer. Remember the last photograph? Las Vegas. His last image in life, caught in surveillance, a visible trace of malaise in his eyes, like he knows, and he’s reluctant, but he’s weary most of all. Who has failed him? Was it us? The money dangled in the light of a jail cell? Death Row — a prophetic phrase hanging like a vulture in the high desert breeze, the car pulled up to a stoplight on the strip, the American night filled with Egyptian names viciously illuminated, the wail of the ambulance come to remove the ark, the body, whose prophecy is completed. Dead at 25. Biggie dead within a year, only 24. Two years later Big L who once asked on a record, “how will I make it?” and answered, “I won’t, that’s how,” shot to death in a drive-by in Harlem. 24 years old. A partial list. Looking at those Harlem slums fifty years earlier, Baldwin asked a crucial question. “Something in me wondered,” he said, “what will happen to all that beauty?”

…Dear D,

You know this Langston poem — I can remember the whole feeling of it, like I was going to blush, when we had to read it in my high school English class and I felt all the eyes in the room turning on me, and what was I supposed to say, what special thing was I supposed to do, or perform, not equipped like you to take on the flow, (it feels like a flow of blood) when you know you are at the center of a stage, and the gaze of the many is upon you, beckoning but as if with a question and all you have before you are the lines:

  The Night is beautiful,

           So are the faces of my people

How to tell them in that moment what it’s like when Jordan pulls up sailing in a flash of bulbs with his tongue wagging, when Iverson breaks into a crossover, when ya folks dance together in the front room to Anita Baker’s Sweet Love, the irrepressible twinkle in Dave Chappelle’s eye, and everything, yes, everything Lauryn Hill touches with her truth. How it’s like that feeling Hurston calls “Cosmic Zora,” and the grain of Maya Angelou’s voice when she says, “Yes,” and in the way Obama at a press conference will swipe a question down out of the ether, turn it like a prism in the air in front of a gaggle of white reporters, and answer in a way that makes three or four moves in the space they had imagined one, not even breaking a sweat, and the way Michelle will look at him and her daughters with a pride she reserves for them, carves out for them alone against the glare of the thousand cameras aimed point blank at her body… but also the way only two clicks later on the feed.…there are the faces of your people… wanted, bludgeoned, asphyxiated, rioting, protesting school closings, selling car insurance, mom-in-chief, ghostriding a foreign on a set with smoke flares, choosing a better Cable option, twerking, giving back to the Community, flawless, filling the penitentiaries, shot walking home on the South Side, protesting failing schools, holding the camera up to the wound, shot in a project stairwell, holding the camera up to the wound, thrown against pavement, thrown into panic, thrown into a void, a chasm that reaches up and might reach you anywhere anytime in some unforeseen way, or always foreseen way, the body in a doomed struggle against a script so familiar it is almost rehearsal, the faces of my people, get it on camera! get the camera! don’t! exeunt — crackle of radio, alarms of emergency that arrive only to confirm      a body    splayed on a city pavement     denied honor      and this only the beginning of one end     another end    endlessly repeating       

You have to go back with me for a minute and remember how hard it was to maintain a mindscape, a haven for a certain kind of old-school thoroughness that wouldn’t come off as corny in the Timberland roughneck reign of Fubu and Rocawear. The threading of the needle necessary to ensure you had that track on the mixtape that one that — no matter who you made it for — was guaranteed to connect. And that counted for a lot. After all, with Voodoo D’Angelo could have capitalized and turned out a commercially minded R&B crossover. He was primed for mainstream success. But he chose to go another route. Spent years woodshedding in New York City with The Ummah, the luminaries: Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Bob Power, J Dilla, Raphael Saadiq, Premier, and Questlove. They freed him up to make something no one had really heard before. Somehow he had sponged it all in: the clutch jazz sample, the boudoir bohemian vamp, the afterhours playa’s game, as nimble at crooning behind a Method Man verse as whispering silky over vintage Roberta Flack, the whole thing liquid and simmering, an extended hymn to intoxicating presence, a dope sound.

On tracks like “One Mo’ Gin,” “The Line,” and “Chicken Grease,” you can hear all the key ingredients of that special recipe. The way the arrangements are textured but stripped down, like the Delphonics are playing underwater in the room next door, allowing Bootsy worthy bass to guide you upward to the ambient afro-stereo molasses built around D’Angelo’s husky falsetto which he loves self-harmonizing to, always a little behind the beat, in eccentric orbit, so that the lyrics are always swallowed back into the groove, stirred back into the mix.

All that Prince, all that yowling-into-a-moan-into-a-woozy-note-that’s not-quite-crooning either — suspended like a drop of sweat, a vocal lineage straight out of James Brown. You hear it in the hints of Jesse Johnson’s guitar, like on the heaving, electrified cover of “She’s Always in My Hair.” Like Prince, he exudes an un-bracketed and unclassifiable sexuality — though his own inflection is homey and rounded where Prince tends to the flamboyant and angular. D’Angelo grew up a preacher’s kid in his father’s Pentecostal church in Richmond, Virginia, and I have often wondered if the intense inwardness of his erotic charge is not exactly what the clash between a musical awakening to Prince and the law of the Father in a Southern church ought to produce. The flashpoint of glory where the sacred tips over into the secular. This is the kind of music that does things for people, a strong medicine that works you down, that produces space for self-knowledge. Voodoo was one of those life-raft albums, a record that I give credit to for helping me get through college. It was also — and still is — a kind of password between post-millennial afronauts, one that sets conversations you’ve been wanting to have flowing, that makes people close their eyes a bit with a smile, just by bringing it up.

In the hour of the die-in, and Ferguson on fire, interstates shut down by chains of willing bodies, in the hour of unending police shootings, and inevitable police acquittals, of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “Black Lives Matter,” D’Angelo’s Black Messiah dropped seemingly out of the ether, a flash of black hope in the hour of chaos. The decision to put the record to wax in the winter of 2014 invests the record with inevitable historical resonance. The fists in the air on Black Messiah’s cover art, like the red, white and black flag on Sly Stone’s touchstone 1971, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, speak directly in the language of the black freedom struggle.

Yet as the liner notes attest, the political vision of the album is internationalist in scope. D’Angelo’s sweeping triangulation of Ferguson, the Arab Spring (Egypt), and Occupy Wall Street, speaks to the interlocking diaspora of democratic aspiration that continues to define the politics of our time. In his acceptance speech at the Oscars for the song “Glory,” Common made the same move, connecting Selma to the Southside of Chicago, the Charlie Hebdo solidarity rallies in France, and the movement for democracy in Hong Kong. That songs in the key of black American life willingly accept these wider commitments and explicitly advocate for them, is a fact that deserves more attention than it often receives.

Black Messiah takes solidarity seriously. If you want an index check Fred Hampton in full jeremiad sampled on “1000 Deaths”: “they’re a bunch of megalomaniac war-mongers… and we’ve got to fight ‘em, we’ve got to struggle with ‘em to make ‘em understand what we mean!” The voice of Fred “To Die for the People” Hampton, a Black Panther famously assassinated by police in Chicago on a record called Black Messiah, released in response to a spate of highly mediatized police killings, is about as bold a political statement as anyone — let alone an R&B artist — can make. D’Angelo is tapping into the function of black music as a site of resistance in American life, including its insistence on alternative futures and lifestyles directed from below and not imposed from above.

He is not alone in sensing a sea-change. In fact, it’s possible at the dawn of 2015 to begin to distinguish the outlines of a new aesthetic in black music that is looking back to the late 60s and 70s to repurpose a latent counter-cultural energy that got sapped away in the Reagonnomic “Gerich or die trying” fantasies that pervaded so much of hip-hop and R&B in the new millennium. It may be that Black Messiah heralds not just the return of D’Angelo but the hinge opening the door to a new school of funk-fugitives with one foot in the analog past and another in the digital future. You can see this in the rising stars of hip-hop, artists like Joey Bada$$, or Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which  connects Pac and the sounds of the 70s to a new insurgent sensibility. You hear similar strains in Janelle Monae but also in more underground currents like Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces. They are all pointing towards a freer mode of black vanguard expression, a focus on minor key sensibilities — including unpleasant ones like melancholia — that go under the skin, that are willing to explore black interiority and deliver it raw, unreconstructed, unpolished for smooth consumption.

On Black Messiah tracks like “Really Love” and “Another Life” reverberate with the lushness of early Curtis Mayfield simmering like a background radiation of remembrance, informing a return to a political moment thought to be past, but that in D’Angelo’s interpolation is a messianic collective energy just on the cusp breaking through. The chugging locomotive tracks “Charade” and “1000 Deaths”, interspersed with off-tempo soul-claps and peaking under an onslaught of ghosting Hendrix cries, form a soundtrack for marching, for marches past and present, from Selma to Montgomery, from Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge, and from Ferguson to Jefferson City. But the energy of irrepressible black life and affirmative black love saturates every inch of the album. Each track speaks plainly to the unquenchable, unmistakable sweetness of black life.

D’Angelo’s proud insistence on the analog “no digital” production subtends what we might call the album’s “analog politics,” the orchestra of the grassroots, the kinfolk just kickin’ it power of the black undercommons, of black life in situ, already organized in its own laid-back fashion, a model of everyday resistance by everyday people, by any means necessary, yes, but also by all means available, including whatever’s cooking in the kitchen right now, including love in all its forms. Which explains why so many of the tracks on this album, and really throughout D’Angelo’s discography, are always on the threshold of the instrumental, of the Quiet Storm erotic whisper, dense with atmosphere, soaked in vernacular funk, or as D puts it: “being care free and lucid, just natural, you know, just chillin.” It’s why the tracks always feel occasional, attached to spaces of casual assembly, conceived out of moments of gathering, summer block parties, backyard cookouts and stoops. Sure, you can float around your apartment all day to the record, but what you really want to do is call up whoever matters in your life and fill the room to capacity, get the house to sway together like a church on Sunday.

The grammar of hashtags is necessarily reductive. We know black lives matter, and anybody who doesn’t agree isn’t going to be converted. The thing to grasp, as D’Angelo says in his notes, is that we should all be aspiring to lead lives that require us to expand solidarity and demand dignity. Not out of obscurantist racial identification, but for the happiness of human mutuality, the sensuous, even sacred joy, that comes with everyday people being together rather than apart. To think about blackness as a kind of categorical imperative, a duty first to ourselves and therefore to all, to expand the reach of freedom from domination, to understand blackness as a way of being in the world that necessitates a political project, that orients our expression inevitably towards a confrontation with injustice. It is also to understand that black humanism, with black music at its core, is the foundation that has cracked open a hollow American democracy by force and continuous resistance, and that remembering and carrying on the burden of that struggle continues to be the only hope for making this country a place worth living in, a nation with something to offer other than the cold hand of business ruling over a glass-tower gentry, a pauperized and fearful suburban petty bourgeoisie, and underneath it all the abyss of the black gulag archipelago.

…Dear D,

Let’s talk for a minute about the Spanish Joint. About nights in Richmond and nights in Havana, and what they both know about New Orleans. About Africa. How America’s greatest music comes out of her greatest slaveports. How there’s this thing in your music that Fred Moten would call its “surplus lyricism,” a saturation of sweetness so thick it threatens to curdle the notes, and maybe it does, the way Cootie kept Duke’s elegance just ratchet enough to keep folks from sitting through a concert comfortably….

It’s rings false at some point if you let things get too abstract. The greatness of D’Angelo needs no commentary. Still to say of the texture of his music that it is intensely embodied, that the troubled history of the representation of black bodies is inseparable from the force of the music he makes, this is to do justice to his art, and I use that word with care here; it is related to his music just as the righteous thirst for dignity denied is central to the protest movement against police brutality. It’s worth insisting on this point, because one of the subplots embedded in D’Angelo’s greater narrative is that of an artist wrestling with his own over-representation — with the abjection of his body.

The attempt to canonize D’Angelo as a sex symbol only ever made sense to his label. He was comfortable in his skin, no doubt, but anyone could see he was shy, even introverted, the sensitive son of a preacher with small town roots. The infamous video for the single “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” that essentially consisted of three minutes of a periscope trained on his midsection was successful for a minute in selling records, but the objectification and scrutinizing of his body for sexual gratification was obviously damaging. It was an important part of what sent him into reclusion. People laughed about it, but in the accounts that trickled down the grapevine there was reason to be concerned. For a number of years it seemed like D’Angelo might not be able to make it back, that we might lose him to his demons, that he might go the way of David Ruffin.

Among other things to praise on Black Messiah is a protest of self-love. In a touching note we shouldn’t overlook D cracks wise: “So if you’re wondering / about the shape I’m in / I hope it ain’t my abdomen / that you’re referring to.” What’s true of our mistake is also true of our body politic at large. Self-love is something we can work on and recover no matter how badly we’ve been bruised. Sometimes it’s just that you have to go back to find your way forward. The testament of love is what survives us, what the future looks back to remember in the imperiled hour:

…Dear D,

Man, where you been all these years? Promise to tell me sometime about it. It’s all good though. Your record is everything it’s supposed to be. It’s a point of light. Shining. We hear you and we’re going back. And we’re gonna take the country back too. Fela Kuti said, “music is the weapon of the future.” Sometimes digging in the crates is where you find the new salvo. But we need you now for real. Ta-Nehisi speaks of “the beautiful struggle.” I feel like you think it that way too. You sing it that way. Your music gives us a glimpse of the world we want to live in all the time, of another life. It reminds us how beautiful the struggle can sound. So do your thing, brother. Be our bridge over troubled water. Till it’s done.