What D’Angelo’s Album Release Taught Me About Opportunity, Urgency, & Artistry

5 – 7 MINUTE READ

In order to understand anything else I’m going to say, you’ve got to know that I was playing D’Angelo’s “Lady” up until last week. It was released in 1996. I have always been intrigued by D’Angelo’s vocal ability, complex harmonies, and musicianship. And then… on Monday morning, 12 am, December 15th, he released “Black Messiah” almost out of nowhere.

On my Friday commute, I noticed a poster on the side of a building that read, “All we wanted was a chance to talk / Instead our bodies got outlined in chalk.” I thought it might be from a group that was doing some activism around Ferguson and the many other instances of police brutality. (I would later find out that those were lyrics to D’Angelo’s song “Charade”, featured on the project). Later on that day, I noticed a picture of the album art floating across my Facebook timeline. By Sunday, I was up all night, awaiting the release of an album that seemed to just materialize… sort of like Smeagle and “his precious” ring. (Yes, it was that serious).

The album struck me to my core. Of course, the music was amazing. However, as I listened, I sensed a certain subtext from the project. Yesterday, the New York Times explained that D’Angelo did, indeed, use current events around Ferguson as a subtext and inspiration for release. However, he had to put in some serious work to release it at such a critical time. At that point, all of the pieces came together for me. This album, the way it was released, the circumstances surrounding it, and his 14 year hiatus made this project  a powerful learning tool.

Lessons on Opportunity: Before I came to college student affairs, I studied Theater. One of my favorite directors always said, “It’s not just about the product, it’s about the process.” Music, nowadays, seems to be largely product driven. Many industries are also turning in that direction. Businesses need to produce in order to make money. Writers need to produce work. Professionals need to produce in their respective companies. Most of us are being evaluated by what we produce, and many times, our windows of opportunity open and close accordingly.

But D’Angelo hadn’t produced anything for public consumption in 14 years. I recall having conversations about his relevancy as an artist, given his long hiatus. Yet when his project “Black Messiah” came out, it quickly reached #1 on the iTunes chart. According to the New York Times, D’Angelo decided to produce this project in analogue: both a time consuming and vigorous process. Still, there it stands, amid all of the other digital projects… #1. This tells me there was something to what my Theater director taught us. The product is important, for sure. If the music wasn’t good, I doubt it would have been as successful. However, the process… the 14 year wait even when naysayers argued that it discredited his relevance, the decision to create in analogue… all of these things came together to create, inform, craft the product. His window of opportunity did not close. What that means to me is that there are some instances where we can and may go through a lengthy, vigorous process (whether internal or external) that is just as crucial to our success as our actual product is.

Lessons on Urgency & Artistry: One of my favorite moments of Erykah Badu, a neosoul artist, was hearing her recorded voice explaining, “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my (stuff).” In similar fashion, the New York Times article explains that there were certain details that D’Angelo found important to create the overall feel of the project. However, in order to keep pulse with the national discourse, they had to move forward with a release.   Even after 14 years, D’Angelo & the Vanguard, his production team, marketing, and record label had to really get a move on, in order to release the project at such a relevant time in history. I am a student affairs professional. But I am also an artist. I am deeply familiar with the time it takes to get things a certain way, and how that influences the way your audience receives your work. When I did studio vocals, I would dialogue intensely with the producer about which instruments or effects we could use to allow the song feel how I wanted to. When I began freelancing, I would go over the writing and read it aloud. I needed to see how the punctuation (or lack thereof) contributed to the overall message. As an artist, I know there’s always something else to be done.

Yet there are times where you have to give up your artistic preferences to gain momentum. What I saw from D’Angelo, was a sense of urgency;  keeping in pulse with what’s going on nationally over perfect timing and perfectly-rolled-out ad campaigns. As someone who has worked in advocacy units in higher education, I can appreciate that. But I can also appreciate that as a producer of content (written and otherwise). Sometimes, you’ve just go to move. Sometimes, even after years of waiting, you’ve got to be in tune to when the window of opportunity opens and calls your art forward. Sometimes, you’ve got to discern that the present moment requires your voice and your work. When we’re waiting… we get used to waiting, and sometimes we use that as an excuse to postpone our work. So it takes a certain amount of skill and discernment to understand that when it’s time to move forward with a project, dream, or goal… then it’s time to move forward.

So, this week, I’m processing through what these lessons mean for my own work: my career in higher education, the art that I still pursue, and many other facets. Studying this along with the themes presented in the project itself, has given me a lot to chew on. Check out a musical review of the project here!

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What D’Angelo’s Album Release Taught Me About Opportunity, Urgency, & Artistry by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.