Here are the album reviews I wrote for the March issue of EL Magazines, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.
-D’Angelo and the Vanguard (RCA/Sony)
The title of Ne-Yo’s sixth album is a dodge. In the “Intro” he explains that the subject matter is “fictional” but derived from “experiences” sent to him by “real people.” These are “true stories” he made up, and a lot of them have to do with sex, presented in a vernacular that’s more graphic than anything the dapper R&B star was previously associated with. The overall impression is one of an artist testing the waters, trying to figure out if the carefully groomed image that helped him achieve superstardom needs to be restyled for a more cynical market. But if the tailored suits and gallant attitude seemed special in a world where R. Kelly and T-Pain were just as popular, the real reason people loved Ne-Yo was his songs, which were gems of craft. For all its sexual reticence, The Year of the Gentleman remains one of the most pleasurable records of the last 20 years, and as Non-Fiction proves, he’s still a consummate album-maker. There’s a wholeness to the production that compels the listener to the next cut. The lyrics are another story. Despite the shade of play-acting, Ne-Yo’s classic concerns are in tact: the need to find true love outside the trappings of celebrity, understanding that the party is about companionship. When he threatens physical violence in “Story Time” you wince, not because violence is repulsive, though it is, but because Ne-Yo doesn’t sound as if he understands that. And whereas in the past ballads and uptempo songs fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, here they sound clumsily juxtaposed, as if they’d been written as antidotes to each other. Ne-Yo still has the chops, but being himself is better than trying to act like someone else. It’s been so long since we last heard from D’Angelo that we may have forgotten who he sounds like, and what’s so startling about his first album in 14 years is that it has no precedent. Though it sounds more like Voodoo than anything else, Black Messiah stands alone as a freak of nature. This is groove music reimagined for a generation that didn’t experience the development of funk firsthand. Though all the classic elements of soul music are here, D’Angelo borrows an attenuated song sense from bebop, letting the melodies percolate out of the rhythmic interplay. The song lengths will challenge those whose faith in black music is rooted in the classics of the past, but in reality they speak the same truths, which is important since, as the artist himself has said, the reason it took so long to produce it is that he had something to say about the state of his people. It’s an album about community, about the worth not only of black lives, but the connections between them. Consequently, the music’s sinuous forward momentum conveys continuity with the future. You dance in one place, but you march ever onward. Continue reading