But on Sunday, there was a New York listening party, and a single, “Sugah Daddy,” was released via Red Bull’s “20 Before 15” series. There was a track listing and, just like that, D’Angelo pulled listeners back in with a song that felt like a big, aural bear hug from an old friend. Its funky styling would have been right at home on “Voodoo.”
The singer distributed lyric pamphlets at the listening party for the new album and explained his reasoning for the name “Black Messiah”:
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.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 decides 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.
Cautious nostalgia abounded, with good reason: In 2012, when D’Angelo played Essence Music Festival, he left his fans quizzical, bereft and disappointed. “James River” was the supposed 2009 follow-up to “Voodoo” that never materialized. Even with the five years between his debut “Brown Sugar” (1995) and “Voodoo,” a third album seemed like little more than a pipe dream. And “Sugah Daddy” has actually been kicking around, in various iterations, since 2012.
Wrote Tracy Clayton in 2008:
… d’angelo is “making progress” on his new album, which will be the first since i graduated high school. ive been outta high school for like 50 years (read: 8).yeah, i dont believe it. shame on u if u fool me once. shame on me if u fool me twice. remember that weird a– mumble jumble wtf-is-he-saying single he put out awhile ago? i was like okay, its cool… at least i get to hear me some d’angelo again, even if i DONT know wtf he’s sayin. i can listen to this til the rest comes out.lmao @ the rest. WHERE THE FRICK IS THE REST, HUH?!
The years since the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” vocalist became known as an international giver of the vapors were not easy ones. He nearly died in a 2005 car accident. He developed a serious substance abuse problem and largely receded from public life, only emerging for occasional features on tracks for artists like Common, Raphael Saadiq and Snoop Dogg. The music nerd struggled to come to terms with being cast as a sex symbol after the release of a pretty titillating video.
“I feel really guilty, because that was never the intention,” his former manager Dominique Trenier said in an interview with Spin in 2008. “‘Untitled’ wasn’t supposed to be his mission statement for ‘Voodoo.’ I’m glad the video did what it did, but he and I were both disappointed because, to this day, in the general populace’s memory, he’s the naked dude.”
D’Angelo made court appearances for charges of marijuana possession, drunk driving, disturbing the peace, and carrying a concealed weapon. He was found guilty and served a 90-day suspended jail sentence. Gary Harris, the A&R rep who first signed him, practically forced the singer onto a plane in spring 2006 to get him to Crossroads, Eric Clapton’s rehab facility in Antigua. It was one of several attempts to get D’Angelo clean.
Questlove would continually campaign on behalf of his friend and assure people that yes, new music — good music — would be coming. Eventually.
“I consider him a genius beyond words,” Questlove told Pitchfork in 2012, when D’Angelo finally began to tour again and the two were working on the then-titled “James River.” “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.”
But Sunday night was the real deal. Early verdicts were very, very good, and suggested that D’Angelo’s 14-year hiatus was forgiven in the moments it took to dig into, and subsequently get lost in, “Black Messiah.”
Welcome back, D’Angelo.