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Desert Island Disc Challenge: D’Angelo and The Vanguard ‘Black Messiah’

There’s no place better than an island for self-reflection.

Editor’s note: As part of CMN’s ongoing music journalism program, we asked our team of music writers to take on the age-old challenge of choosing one piece of music they would like to have with them if they were stranded on a deserted island. It’s an absurd notion, but also irresistible. See all the different approaches they took to the challenge right over here.

Before I take on this challenge, I’d like to go on record and say that I have no intention of ever being stranded on a desert island. I’m far too suited to First World comforts for that.

That being said, if some unfortunate series of events were to transpire resulting in me abandoned such an island, I’d like to have some music with me (if only to keep me from talking to a volleyball).

But what album?

I fall in love with a new record practically every week, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best choice for my indefinite future alone on an island. No, the perfect album has to stand the test of time, offering something new to discover both lyrically and sonically with each listen.

In other words, a classic. And I don’t use that lightly.

Initially I considered artists like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Outkast – I’ve always been a pretty hardcore rap fan – who all have numerous classics (by my definition). But I have to pick one. And I got to thinking: would I want to listen to a rap album – the same rap album – forever?

Probably not. My perfect “deserted island album,” while free to touch on the subject matter typically found in hip hop albums, would need to feature vocals in a more traditional sense – less spoken word and more singing. So in essence, which artist could provide the best of both worlds? The grit and the glamour?

One artist crossed my mind: D’Angelo.

He first rose to fame with 2000’s Voodooand subsequent single “Untitled (How Does It Feel?)” The music video for the latter turned him into an overnight sex symbol. D’Angelo himself, was frustrated by the public’s obsession with a part of him not pertaining to his artistry.

And thus, he vanished.

Fourteen years later, D’Angelo and backing band The Vanguard released Black Messiah, a slow burning, genre-spawning album of epic – even biblical – proportions.

Opening with “Ain’t That Easy,” D’Angelo croons in his earthy fashion to “take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside,” outlining some of the many delicate relationships explored on the album – abusive relationships, drug addiction, and racial relations.

\Racial relations are explored in greater detail on “1000 Deaths” and “The Charade.” The former begins with a speech form Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Black activist and former chairman of the National Black Panther Party. Over a distorted, snare-heavy drum loop and occasional guitar lick, D’Angelo proclaims that Jesus does not look like the man portrayed by the Catholic religion, but instead “the Jesus of the Bible, with hair like lamb’s wool. I’m talking about that good hair, that nappy hair.”

Hampton is sampled directly afterwards, reiterating the sentiments of Malcom X’s “By Any Means Necessary” speech: “Black people need some peace, white people need some peace. And we are going to have to fight, we’re going to have to struggle, and we’re going to struggle relentlessly.”

Diverting from political intensity, D’Angelo returns to a sound reminiscent of his earlier work on “Really Love,” which serves as a testament to his musical maturation outside of the spotlight. Here D’Angelo and crew are expertly able to combine elements of flamenco, hip hop, and string accompaniment while declaring devotion to his lover.

“Back to the Future” (Part I and Part II) has D’Angelo – over a funk backing practically begging for a clap-along – wishing he could return to simpler times, because he “used to get real high, now [he’s] just getting a buzz.”

What he wishes to return to, remains a mystery. Is it the initial sensation of an illegal substance, or how it felt to record music before he was branded as a sex symbol?

Or perhaps the overarching question we should be asking ourselves – as sung in “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” – is: “do we even know what we’re fighting for?”

There is an innate relatability in D’Angelo’s detailed struggles: the human condition – the best and the worst of it. And considering each track is backed by equally potent, soul-searching instrumentals, this album is timeless, a classic.

An album perfect for listening to on a deserted island.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

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