The distance D’Angelo created for himself over what’s now been nearly 15 years was always hard to reconcile. When something special slowly vanishes, it’s hard to wrap the mind around the whys.
Singular talent has had a way of voluntarily disappearing over the past decade.
The only way to explain Dave Chappelle walking away from his nominal sketch comedy show, when its powers were at such a height that Comedy Central showered him with $50 million, was to contemplate the reality that Chappelle couldn’t figure out how much of his audience was laughing with him, versus at him.
Sorting though what led Lauryn Hill to purge her emotions in a recording for “MTV Unplugged” four years after her debut album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” beautifully split neo-soul and hip-hop like parallel bars, would only lead you to her internal struggle with industry pressures.
Every time Andre 3000 has turned up on a song with Future or Ke$ha or Devin the Dude or Rick Ross over Oukast’s eight-year hiatus, it’s been hard to understand why he wouldn’t want to go in the studio and craft another genre-bending album with Outkast — or, for that matter, to make his own. But it’s clear how bored he is with rap in general.
In all of those cases, with self-imposed exile and in occasional flirtations with the outside world, dangled the possibility of a return that seemed like it might never come.
It was the same with D’Angelo, until last weekend. Word spread on Friday that there would be a new song on Saturday. Then Saturday brought reports that his entire, long-awaited album, “Black Messiah,” would be revealed at midnight.
For D’Angelo, as mythology has it, his talent and insecurity were always at odds. He was the kind of crooner who studied Prince, James Brown, Sly Stone, and Miles Davis as if they were biblical figures. But at the exact moment he unleashed “Voodoo” in 2000, in the process redefining modern soul and R&B, the video for his lead single “Untitled [How Does It Feel]” made his chiseled body more important than his door-busting body of work.
So he retreated to Richmond, Va., and slid into seclusion.
The times he surfaced musically — on records with Snoop Dogg or Common or Raphael Saadiq or Q-Tip — seemed arbitrary. For every rumored revival, there was a report of legal trouble — cocaine possession and a car crash in 2005 — that always stalled studio sessions.
Two years ago, he did publicity runs and toured, making two stops in Boston — at the Bank of America Pavilion and the House of Blues — but then went dark again. So his surprise return over the weekend felt different from Beyoncé’s similar tactic, in that its utter out-of-nowhere-ness was more jarring.
“Black Messiah,” the 12-song follow-up to D’Angelo’s career-defining masterstroke, is charged by the unrest of the moment, but also mellowed by the seductive sound that made him instantly compelling when he dropped his 1995 debut album, “Brown Sugar.” It’s a stew of social frustration and sonic ambition that clearly came together in stages over his time out of the spotlight.
Between “Really Love,” “1000 Deaths,” and “Sugah Daddy,” the new project includes fully-formed versions of what had existed only in skeletal form before. Questlove of the Roots leaked a version of “Really Love” seven years ago, and buzz about Prince working on “1000 Deaths” also started humming around that time. D’Angelo performed “Sugah Daddy” in Boston two years ago.
He still layers his voice like its own horn section. But backed by his new band the Vanguard, to whom the album is jointly credited, his sprawling funk grooves and pointed (if characteristically indecipherable) lyrics are still strikingly timely.
For a man who once told Jet magazine, “The term R&B doesn’t mean what it used to mean. R&B is pop, that’s the new word for R&B,” it’s as if he felt an urgency to make his contemporary take on Sly and the Family Stone’s “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”
“Black Messiah” is laced with beautifully brutal lines. Sometimes, as on “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” the lightest drum taps, wispy strings, and a swaying guitar riff chase an opening musing that can easily encapsulate the past year in Ferguson, New York, and Sanford: “In a world where we all circle the fiery sun with a need for love, what have we become?” Lines like “Degradation so loud that you can’t hear the sound of our cries” echo in your subconscious.
He makes only passing reference to his absence, as on “Back to the Future (Part I)” —
It’s one of several stretches in which his words wander over time lost and what’s ahead. And you start to realize that when generational talents like D’Angelo eventually do return, the whys find a way to explain themselves.