In December 2014, D’Angelo rush-released his third album, Black Messiah, in response to extrajudicial police killings of unarmed black men and women. A black-and-white image featuring a crowd of raised palms and fists comprises the album’s face and channels both U.S. civil rights protest imagery and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a phrase inextricably linked to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Because of this urgent engagement with anti-black violence in the past and present, some saw Black Messiah as a form of restorative justice in “a media landscape in which [black] humanity is regularly assaulted,” as popular music scholar Mark Anthony Neal puts it.
D’Angelo first rose to fame with his debut album, Brown Sugar (1995), and Voodoo (2000) solidified the singer-songwriter’s mainstream popularity. To his discontent, the video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel?),” the Grammy-award winning single from Voodoo, turned the crooner into a sex symbol and he ceased touring and releasing music for fourteen years. This hiatus makes the word play in Black Messiah all the more poignant. The redemptive overtones of the album’s title and cover art foreshadow salvation as well as the promise of one’s freedom vis-à-vis superior leadership and collective protest. But the melancholic lyrics, distorted bass lines, droning organ chords, and dense clusters of sound that rise and fall between frenetic guitar riffs and smooth, albeit strange, harmonies eschew the album’s reparative, liberatory ethos. In so doing, Black Messiah departs from the neo-soul contours of D’Angelo’s early years to offer a non-conforming sonic vision of black life. Notably, fans demanded refunds because of the album’s apparent sonic incoherence.