The 14-year wait for D'Angelo's album Black Messiah (RCA) ended the night of Dec. 14 with a Beyoncé-esque surprise release. In light of this album's political vibe, it seems that Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson was prescient earlier this month when he called "for musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in."
On Dec. 4, after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the police officer whose chokehold led to Eric Garner's death, Questlove posted a photo on Instagram of the logo of the militant rap group Public Enemy: a silhouette of a black man targeted in a rifle's crosshairs.
"We need new Dylans. New Public Enemys. New [Nina] Simones. New ideas!" he wrote. "I mean real stories. Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions. Protest songs don't have to be boring or nondanceable. They just have to speak truth."
The Garner decision closely followed the civil unrest after a Ferguson, Mo., grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who shot unarmed Michael Brown. The two decisions have since inspired organized mass protest marches country- and worldwide.
There has been a growing pop-cultural response. On Facebook, Samuel L. Jackson urged celebrities who took the Ice Bucket Challenge to sing a song called "We Ain't Gonna Stop Till People Are Free." Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose started the vogue for "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt activism among highly visible African American athletes.
Questlove's call, however, was a reaction to the at-best-sporadic response of the pop music community to the events in Ferguson.
Back in August, when Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson, there was a brief flurry of protest songs. Rapper J. Cole released the mournful "Be Free." Ms. Lauryn Hill put out "Black Rage," which gave fresh lyrics to the hallowed John Coltrane arrangement of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things." And folkie Ezra Furman eulogized Brown in "Ferguson's Burning," which harks back to Dylan salvos like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll."
Since then, reactions have been few. Rapper Killer Mike, one-half of the interracial duo Run the Jewels, gave an emotional speech on Ferguson last month that has gone viral. And University of Pennsylvania grad John Legend and Chicago rapper Common teamed up on "Glory," the end-credits song in Ava DuVernay's civil-rights drama Selma, which has been nominated for a best original song Golden Globe.
Written in October, the song connects 1960s struggles led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Brown's death. "Resistance is us," Common rhymes. "That's why Rosa sat on the bus, that's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up."
But in general - maybe because pop acts fear the type of backlash felt by the Dixie Chicks when they opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - pop music has not been in the mood for political confrontation.
Maybe that's because it's quicker and easier to let your allegiances be known with a simple tweet, like the one Kanye West sent out to his 11 million followers last week: "600,000 people rallied for justice on Dec. 13th #blacklivesmatter." There have been few signs of engagement with the long history of black protest music, when songs such Nina Simone's outraged 1964 track "Mississippi Goddam," James Brown's 1968 anthem "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," and Marvin Gaye's sorrowful 1971 "What's Going On" were but a few of the countless examples of music's playing a crucial role as both a soundtrack and a catalyst for a broad social movement.
That's where Black Messiah comes in. It has been a long, long time since 2000's smoldering Voodoo - credited to D'Angelo & the Vanguard, one of whose members is Questlove. And while Black Messiah is not a 100 percent political record by any means, it doesn't shy away from the struggle either.
"Black Messiah is a hell of a name for an album," D'Angelo (real name Michael Eugene Archer) writes in an introduction. "For me, the title is about all of us. It's about the world. It's about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah.
"It's about people rising up in Ferguson and in Egypt and in Occupy Wall Street and every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. . . . Calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader."
That's a heavy burden for a collection of songs so long in the making, it easily could have been delivered stillborn, a victim of its own significance.
Instead, Black Messiah - a totally nondigital enterprise, recorded in old-school fashion on two-inch tape - feels light and free on its feet, a natural extension of the richly rhythmic Voodoo that moves in all sorts of satisfyingly fresh directions.
It takes musical cues from Sly & the Family Stone's dense, dark 1971 There's a Riot Goin' On, and is suffused with many influences: Al Green's fluttery Memphis soul, Parliament Funkadelic, and Jimi Hendrix's psychedelic guitar freakouts.
There are tender moments, such as the Spanish-guitar romance "Really Love" and the Delfonics-worthy closing ballad, "Another Life." And there are even flashes of humor. In "Back to the Future," while strings join in a swoony groove, D'Angelo jests about his onetime status as a shirtless lust object before substance abuse contributed to his epic layoff: "If you're wondering what kind of shape I'm in, I hope it's not my abdomen you're referring to."
But the songs that hit hardest on Black Messiah are those that most powerfully evoke current tensions among citizens who feel that neither economic nor racial justice is being served in a divided America.
That tone is set with "1000 Deaths," which begins with the voice of a preacher evoking a biblical "Black revolutionary messiah." Over a chugging, militant groove, the 40-year-old songwriter - who wrote Black Messiah with the assistance of P-Funk singer Kendra Foster and A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip - prepares for battle. "A coward dies a thousand times," he sings, his voice manipulated so you have to listen hard. "But a soldier dies only once."
Black Messiah most chillingly - and poetically - expresses anger with too-slow progress toward equality on "The Charade." Its chorus contains the album's most-often-quoted lyric about racial violence and frustration: "All we wanted was a chance to talk, 'stead we only got outlined in chalk," D'Angelo sings, in his most Sly-like voice, managing a sinister sneer. "Feet have bled a million miles we've walked, revealing at the end of the day, the charade."
Black Messiah includes some music that had leaked as far back as 2006. But D'Angelo's move to drop it now is clearly intentional. Either Questlove knew it was coming when he issued his call to arms, or his argument was so persuasive that it convinced D'Angelo that now was the time to stop tweaking and let go.
Either way, there's no question Black Messiah speaks loudly to the here and now.