When I read the news that D’Angelo would soon be dropping his “long, long-awaited” album I was in shock, literally. My brother had died the night before. The fact that I had been anxiously awaiting this album for years didn’t matter. I was dazed, drained, and devastated. How could I possibly care about D’Angelo?
This was the state of mind that I began streaming Black Messiah on Spotify, a couple days later, on the night it dropped. I listened to it in the dark, sitting on my parents couch, watching lights blink on their Christmas tree until they were just one big blur of neon color. I listened to it again, and again, until the sun came up. Then I listened to it one more time.
I don’t remember a lot from December 2014. I lost a few weeks there. As is expected when you go through a death in the family. But the important things stick out in my mind. This album really helped me take my mind off shit. For instance, I remember dancing to D’Angelo’s, “Back To The Future,“ with my girlfriend on Christmas morning like we didn’t give a fuck. That song has a groove that doesn’t make sense on paper. It’s the sort of thing you might not even realize is great to dance to unless you try. The bass just pedals one note. It has a little hop to it, too. The kind of hop you’d expect from old jump blues musicians like Cats and The Fiddle or Louis Jordan. But every once in a while, it just slides…like Vroom!
And before you know it, it’s “back to the way it was.”
Like all of D’Angelo’s best work, this song pulls it’s inspiration from a lot of other sources. The most notable here, might be Nas’, “Represent.” The two songs share a key, a very similar in orchestration and arrangement, and even though they have two completely different grooves–on account of the bass line–their beats are so similar that it’s difficult to tell them apart.
This isn’t the only song on Black Messiah that has striking similarities with other classics. For example, compare the mighty riffage on, “1000 Deaths” to that of Funkadelic’s “Hit It & Quit It.” Or notice how, “Really Love,” is a pea from the same pod as Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Then there’s the gorgeous closer, “Another Life,” that has more than it’s share of parallels with both The Delfonics’, “Over and Over,” and Luther Vandross’, “Never Too Much.”
I’m not sure if D’Angelo is doing this on purpose. It’s far more likely that this stuff is just a part of his DNA. In any case, it never comes off as thievery–Black Messiah transcends it’s influences. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is, “Sugah Daddy.” The song already feels like a classic to me. Compare it, first of all, to Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” another song that also pays homage to early swing jazz. Also notable are the vocals which evoke Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. It has a piano that could have been played by Thelonious Monk, a drum beat that’s a dead ringer for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Oh My God,” and body percussion that sounds a little familiar as well. Yet somehow it belongs in it’s own category. It’s a style of music that’s never existed before–neither jazz, hip-hop nor R&B–but somehow all of them, too.
It’s worth remembering that this album is a little over a month old now. In other words, this is also old news. You’ve hopefully already heard Black Messiah, and also wrapped your head around it. As B.G.M.’s Michael White said in December, “To give (Black Messiah) a full review (now) a mere couple days since it’s release would be crass, considering it took nearly fifteen years for this to arrive.”
I couldn’t agree more. This album required some unpacking. Today, I’m not going to go any deeper into why this album is great. This is a singular record, easily the best of 2014, and as good as any soul record ever made. I’m not going dive into the social relevance of this album either–even though it’s quite important. Instead, I have another point to make.
The accepted wisdom was that hip-hop and R&B sucked in 2014. I’m not sure where that idea came from–perhaps people were suffering from Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar withdrawals. The fact is, 2014 was a great year in hip-hop and R&B. Not just because of D’Angelo, either. A lot of great black music came out. In fact, it’s always been this way. Black music has always been the best America has had to offer. So with that in mind, I’ve decided to pay respect to this record in another way–by providing you with links to some of the greatest albums ever made by black artists.
The following is a list of only my favorite hip-hop and R&B albums over the past 45 years. As far as I’m concerned every one of these is essential to any serious music collection. Looking over this list one thing strikes me: there has never been a time when the creative output of black musicians hasn’t been on the forefront of popular music. Sure, New Jack Swing might not be your thing (I love it), but it made way for the golden age of hip-hop, so you’ve gotta love Guy and Bobby Brown for that at least.
So without any further delay. Here is a shit ton of amazing music by black musicians. I think D’Angelo would approve. (Note: most of these links are to Spotify pages.)
1971: Sly and the Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On, Isaac Hayes: Black Moses, Earth, Wind & Fire: s/t , The Stylistics: s/t, Funkadelic: Maggot Brain, Last Poets: This Is Madness, Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces Of Man
1972: Al Green: Let’s Stay Together, I’m Still In Love With You, Bill Withers: Still Bill, Aretha Franklin: Young, Gifted and Black, Curtis Mayfield: Superfly, Stevie Wonder: Talking Book, O’Jays: Back Stabbers, Pharaohs: Awakening, The Stylistics: Round 2, The Dramatics: Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get, Miles Davis: On The Corner
1973: Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters, Al Green: Call Me, Stevie Wonder: Innervisions, Kool & The Gang: Wild and Peaceful, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes: Black and Blue, The Isley Brothers: 3 + 3, The Dramatics: Dramatically Yours, Marvin Gaye: Let’s Get It On, Betty Davis: s/t, Terry Callier: What Color is Love
1975: Commodores: Caught In The Act, Earth, Wind & Fire: That’s The Way Of The World, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes: To Be True, Barry White: Greatest Hits, Smokey Robinson: A Quiet Storm, Parliament: Mothership Connection, The Isley Brothers: The Heat Is On, Allen Toussaint: Southern Nights, Donna Summer: Love To Love You Baby
Rick James: Street Songs
1992: Dr. Dre: The Chronic, Sade: Love Deluxe, En Vogue: Funky Divas, Compton’s Most Wanted: Music To Drive By, Mary J. Blige: Whats The 411, Gang Starr: Daily Operation, Pete Rock and CL Smooth: Mecca And The Soul Brother, Diamond: Stunts, Blunts and Hip-Hop, Redman: Whut? The Album.
1993: Wu-Tang Clan: Enter The Wu-Tang Clan: 36 Chambers , Tribe: Midnight Marauders, R. Kelly: 12 Play , Souls of Mischief: 93 Til Infinity, Snoop Dogg: Doggystyle, Jodeci: Diary Of A Mad Band, Janet Jackson: Janet, Babyface: For The Cool In You, Toni, Tony, Tone: Sons of Soul, Salt-N-Pepa: Very Necessary, Black Moon: Enta Da Stage, Del The Funky Homosapien: No Need For Alarm
1995: Bone Thugs-N-Harmony: E. Eternal 1999, Three-6 Mafia: Mystic Stylez, Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Jodeci: The Show, The Afterparty, The Hotel, D’Angelo: Brown Sugar, Ol’ Dirty Bastard: Return To The 36 Chambers, Mob Deep: The Infamous, Genius/GZA: Liquid Swords, Faith Evans: Faith, Groove Theory: s/t, R. Kelly: s/t, Xscape: Off The Hook, Tricky: Maxinquaye, Tupac: Me Against The World, Goodie Mob: Soul Food
1996: Maxwell: Urban Hang Suite, Outkast: ATLiens, Tupac: All Eyez On Me, Jay-Z: Reasonable Doubt, Fugees: The Score, Aaliyah: One In A Million, UGK: Ridin’ Dirty, Lil’ Kim: Hard Core, Ghostface: Ironman, Backstreet: Another Level, Tupac: Makaveli, The Don Killuminati: 7 Day Theory, DJ Shadow: Endroducing, De La: Stakes Is High, Redman: Muddy Waters
1997: Missy Elliott: Supa Dupa Fly, Biggie: Life After Death, Master P: Ghetto D, Camp Lo: Uptown Saturday Night, Erykah Badu: Baduizum, Busta Rhymes: When Disaster Strikes, Usher: My Way, Twista: Adrenaline Rush
1998: Outkast: Aquemini, Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z: Hard Knock Life Vol. 2, Juvenile: 400 Degreez, DMX: It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, R. Kelly: R., Dru Hill: Enter The Dru, Black Star: Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, DJ Quik: Rhythm-al-ism
1999: Destiny’s Child: Writing’s On The Wall, Kelis: Kalidescope, Prince Paul: Prince Among Thieves, Dr. Dre: 2001, MF Doom: Operation Doomsday, The Roots: Things Fall Apart, Mos Def: Black On Both Sides
Talib Kweli: Train of Thought
2002: Musiq Soulchild: Juslisen , Clipse: Lord Willin’, 50 Cent: 50 Cent Is The Future (Mixtape) *, Cam’ron: Home With Me, Talib Kweli: Quality, Raphael Saadiq: Instant Vintage, The Roots: Phrenology, Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz: Kings Of Crunk
2003: 50 Cent: Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, Erykah Badu: Wordwide Underground, R. Kelly: Chocolate Factory, Jay-Z: The Black Album, Kelis: Tasty, Outkast: Speakerboxx/The Love Below, T.I.: Trap Muzik, Freeway: Philadelphia Freeway
2005: Kanye West: Late Registration, Mary J. Blige: The Breakthrough, Re-Up Gang: We Got It For Cheap Vol. 2 (Mixtape), Young Jeezy: Trap or Die (Mixtape), Lil Wayne: Tha Carter II, Young Jeezy: Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation, Common: Be
2010: Big Boi: Sir Luscious Left Foot, Curren$y: Pilot Talk I and II, Earl Sweatshirt: Earl (Mixtape) *, Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The Dream: Love King, Miguel: All I Want Is You, Drake: Thank Me Later, Big K.R.I.T.: K.R.I.T. Wuz Here (Mixtape), Kendrick Lamar: Overly Dedicated,
2011: Kendrick Lamar: Section 80, A$AP Rocky: Live.Love.A$AP (Mixtape), Drake: Take Care, Danny Brown: XXX (Mixtape) *, The Weeknd: House of Balloons (Mixtape), Kanye and Jay-Z: Watch The Throne, Meek Mill: Dream Chasers (Mixtape),
2012: Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d city, Frank Ocean: Channel Orange , Jeremih: Late Nights (Mixtape), Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream, 2 Chainz: Based On A T.R.U. Story, Rick Ross: Rich Forever (Mixtape), Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music, Joey Bada$$: 1999 (Mixtape)
2013: Beyonce: s/t, Kelela: Cut For Me, Jai Paul: Demos, Danny Brown: Old, Kanye West: Yeezus, Drake: Nothing Was The Same, Earl Sweatshirt: Doris, A$AP Rocky: Long.Live.A$AP, A$AP Ferg: Trap Lord, Vic Mensa: Innannetape (Mixtape)
2014: D’Angelo: Black Messiah, YG: My Krazy Life, Birdman/Young Thug/Rich Homie Quan: Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1, Ty Dolla $ign: Beach House EP, Freddie Gibbs x Madlib: Pinata, Isaiah Rashad: Cilvia Demo, Cakes Da Killa: Hunger Pangs, Nicki Minaj: The Pinkprint, Travis Scott: Days Before Rodeo (Mixtape) *
is a freelance writer and hipster emeritus. His work has appeared in various impressive publications including the one you’re enjoying now and he has his own music blog where he reviews music both old and new: oldnewborrowedblew.blogspot.com