The return of D'Angelo and the Divine Styler
The final weeks of 2014 brought two presents from two reclusive, idiosyncratic, and brilliant cult figures we never thought we’d hear from again: the long-awaited returns of R&B giant D’Angelo and hip-hop innovator the Divine Styler.
Born Michael Eugene Archer in 1974 and raised as the son of a Pentecostal preacher in Richmond, Virginia, D’Angelo seemed poised to set a new raw, gritty, and very real course for modern R&B in the late ’90s with his neo-soul debut Brown Sugar (1995) and, especially, his towering masterpiece Voodoo (2000). He was even more powerful onstage than on record, leaving fans breathless during the long-running tour supporting the latter. But then… nothing, or very, very little, for nearly a decade and a half.
The artist, it seemed, had joined the ranks of frustrated/stymied auteurs unable to top a peak (see also: Kevin Shields, Syd Barrett, or Brian Wilson), instead just disappearing and leaving us hanging. Then, with minimal fanfare, D’Angelo dropped Black Messiah on Dec. 15. And, even more surprising, it proved to be a very worthy successor to Voodoo.
No, the new disc does not have its predecessor’s sustained, swampy moody of mystical mischief. But the music, credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard but including some familiar collaborators from back in the day (superstar drummer Questlove and bassist Pino Palladino chief among them) absolutely follows in the tradition of real, soulful, sweaty grooves and slinky but potent melodies that marked the singer and songwriter’s work in the past. And neither the new and timely political consciousness of some of the lyrics (“1,000 Deaths,” “The Charade”) nor the uncharacteristically sunny optimism of other tunes (“Sugah Daddy,” “The Door”) seem out of character for D’Angelo in context, or out of place amid his more familiar updates on the classic Marvin Gaye mix of sacred and profane (“Prayer,” “Really Love”).
With the title, a concept addressed several times throughout the album, D’Angelo isn’t positioning himself as a savior or calling on supernatural forces to intervene in these troubled times. The primary message is one of spiritual self-reliance—“We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah,” he’s said—and this philosophy is very much in line with that of Marc Richardson, a New Yorker born in 1968 who changed his name to Mikal Safiyullah when he converted to Islam, but who’s better known in the hip-hop world as the Divine Styler.
Like D’Angelo, the Divine Styler has been missing from the music scene for nearly 15 years. And if his masterpiece, 1991’s Spiral Walls Containing Autumns of Light, isn’t quite as celebrated as Voodoo, that’s only because it never received the promotion it deserved during “the Year Punk Broke,” as well as the fact that its heady, spiritual lyrics and wildly inventive, genre-defying music were so out of touch with the then-prevailing trends in gangsta rap.
Richardson has said he dropped out of the hip-hop scene because of its stifling negativity; with heroes including Jimi Hendrix and Sun Ra, he preferred to strive for a utopian ideal rather than reveling in a nihilistic reality. With Def Mask, he gives us a concept album about the ugliness of a Philip K. Dick-like futuristic dystopia that is all too much like our present matrix. But hope can be found in ripping off the mask of the title, which, he says, “keeps others at distance and creates a barrier between the wearer and the multiple realms of psychic pollutants.”
Philosophical, intellectual, but agile in his rhymes, the Divine Styler is just as potent with his music, turning from the jazzier bent of previous work to craft hard-grooving but sonically challenging tracks with a tinge of industrial aggression that puts him in line with DJ Shadow and El-P, and making for a dark, ominous, but consistently rewarding ride from start to finish.
D’Angelo, Black Messiah (RCA)
Rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars.
Divine Styler, Def Mask (Gamma Proforma)
Rating on the four-star scale: 3.5 stars.
Greg Kot and I reviewed Black Messiah on Sound Opinions on Dec. 19, and we’ll talk about Def Mask this week.