Soul

Beauty Behind The Madness (CD)

Alternative R&B artist The Weeknd has gone from underground sensation to worldwide phenomenon, thanks to critical success of albums like House of Balloons and his association with acts like Drake. Beauty Behind the Madness steps up the energy from 2013’s Kiss Land, which wasn’t a bad album but failed to fully capitalize on his indie cred. No such thing with Beauty, which comes on strong and doesn’t let up. The gloriously hedonistic “The Hills” manages to build a radio-ready R&B slow burner while folding in the more experimental elements upon which Abel Tesfaye made his name—a digitally clawed-up croon, atmospheric backdrop and strange effects, like a sampled horror-movie scream acting as a chorus cue. “Earned It,” used in 50 Shades of Grey, goes the other route, a cool jazz ballad with classy strings and lyrics that are more suggestive than crude. “Often” dazzles with its ghostly production, and Tesfaye keeps the party moving on the MJ-ish “Can’t Feel My Face.” Lyrically, Tesfaye leaves something to be desired in the way he sings about women—he’s better off in the parts of “Tell Your Friends” that just focus on doing drugs and funny wordplay (“I'm never rocking white, I'm like a racist”). Throughout Beauty, Tesfaye’s sound is flawlessly constructed, and his voice has grown remarkably from its breathy beginnings to a confidence level that would make him appealing even without his estimable songwriting and production skills. Beauty Behind the Madness is the album that finally, truly announces Tesfaye’s arrival as an A-lister. It’ll be tough to find a more entertaining (or inventive) R&B album released this year.

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Black Messiah (CD)

The long-awaited Black Messiah caps off 2014 as the year’s best soul album. But to call it soul or R&B would be reductive. Even more so than D’Angelo’s previous two albums, the excellent Brown Sugar and neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo, Black Messiah eschews any preconceived notions of what R&B, pop, music in general should be. Black Messiah draws upon a rich history of black music, notably blues, jazz and gospel and funk, and blows them out into billowing, smokey jams that seep under your skin, work their way into your veins. “Ain’t That Easy” rides hard on The Vanguard’s hip-hop beat and raunchy funk chords, while D’Angelo delivers an impassioned vocal and conciliatory lyrics like a sleek modern-day update of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” “1,000 Deaths” lays out Black Messiah’s other theme, starting with a powerful passage by an African American preacher that rails against the presentation of Jesus as a white savior. Over The Vanguard’s stuttering, skronking beat, D’Angelo’s multitracked vocal paints a harrowing picture but makes its most memorable couplet a rallying cry for the oppressed (“A coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier only dies just once), ending in an ecstatic, Prince-worthy cry and Hendrixy guitar explosions. Like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah albums, or (aesthetically) like Kanye West’s Yeezus, Black Messiah is remarkably adventurous throughout. “The Charade” shuffles along a beat reminiscent of Radiohead’s “There, There,” dazzles with springs of sitar and builds to a thick climax. Similarly, “Back to the Future (Part I)” and “II” breaks up a future-funk suite about breaking up, keeping you engaged with its heady groove. Black Messiah’s more accessible moments make for some of the loveliest songwriting D’Angelo’s put to tape, with lush devotionals like “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” and “Really Love” and the jaunty alien jazz of “Sugah Daddy” making for perfect mixtape material. D’Angelo definitely kept us waiting a while for this one, but his remarkably consistent catalog to this point shows that the best things come to those who wait. Truly, Black Messiah is a densely layered soul masterpiece.

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