After more than a decade of near silence, rumors, and rampant speculation, the elusive soul singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo dropped “Black Messiah” on December 15th. The album was both an unexpected gift and a timely political statement that was well-received in many corners of a hungry music world. As Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in his review, “There have been musical comebacks as strong as ‘Black Messiah,’ but not many.”
One of the many refreshing things about the album is how it harkens back to the days when the individual personalities of the flesh-and-blood musicians playing in the studio mattered. Despite the years of solitary-genius stories surrounding D’Angelo, and despite the album’s clearly personal and idiosyncratic vision, “Black Messiah” has the loose, exploratory collectivity of a true ensemble record. It seems significant that the album is credited to D’Angelo and the Vanguard—much like Prince introducing the Revolution on “Purple Rain.”
Jazz fans learn early on that digging into the sideman credits can reveal treasures and musical genealogies. That young pianist backing Lester Young becomes Nat King Cole; the unknown saxophonist on those Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk LPs blossoms into John Coltrane. Most of the names involved in “Black Messiah” are familiar ones. Frere-Jones notes the exceptional contributions of the bassist Pino Palladino and the veteran session drummer James Gadson (who deserves Hall of Fame status for his legendary Bill Withers grooves alone). Much has been written about D’Angelo’s complicated yet ultimately generative relationship with the Roots mastermind Questlove, who was profiled in The New Yorker, in 2012. However, I was particularly drawn to the work of one musician I did not immediately recognize (and the sole artist bringing a female perspective to this album’s all-boys club): the singer Kendra Foster.
On first listening to “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” I thought it might be Erykah Badu singing background, amid a fantastic whirlpool of pitch-shifting vocal lines, but Foster brings a darker, huskier growl than Badu’s more tart attack. The song is a quiet masterpiece, one of my favorites on the record. The opening drum roll references Sly and the Family Stone’s classic “Stand!,” but, instead of that song’s lyrical affirmations and musical ebullience, D’Angelo and Foster create a more pensive mood. A wordless little ditty, like a child singing to herself, is quickly doubled a couple of octaves below; a religious stateliness in the keyboards lies over a deep-pocketed groove, accented by spacey, jazzy guitar lines. The vocal delivery maintains the relaxed, casual innocence of the opening, but the lyrics are almost post-apocalyptic, digging into very adult matters of environmental collapse and the costs of war.
What have we become?
Tragedy flows unbound and there’s no place to run
Till it’s done.
Foster was a co-lyricist on this track and eight of the twelve on the record; I’m surprised more hasn’t been made of her participation. Respecting D’Angelo’s current no-interview policy for “Black Messiah,” she was not available for comment, but hints of an interesting history can be gleaned from the available information.
Foster’s story combines two tropes currently popularized in documentary films: the startling talent of so many backup singers (as seen in the Oscar winner “20 Feet from Stardom”) and the rich tradition of musical mentorship. Despite the five Oscar nominations for “Whiplash,” remember that the gothic abuse of that film is fiction. For a truer portrait of the almost familial intergenerational bonds that music can create, please see the beautifully moving “Keep On Keepin’ On.”It captures the connection between the trumpeter Clark Terry, one of the greatest improvisational voices of the twentieth century, and the young, blind pianist Justin Kauflin. It also connects this relationship to a long continuum—from Ellington to Terry to Quincy Jones, and, continuing to this day, as an ailing Terry continues to teach young musicians even when confined to his bed or wheelchair.
Foster benefitted from a similarly close mentorship with George Clinton, the most influential funk artist after James Brown, whom she met in her hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. Unlike many pop artists, who are expected to burst onto the scene, musical parentage unknown, Foster not just acknowledges but celebrates her connection to Clinton’s living musical history. And the affection is clearly mutual: in a Kickstarter video for her last album, you can see Clinton’s evident pride in the young woman he nurtured from a studio assistant to a touring band member with his P-Funk All Stars to a respected colleague and collaborator. At one point he cackles, “P-Funk, D’Angelo … that’s a hell of a résumé!”
Partially funded by that Kickstarter campaign, Foster independently released a strong début in April, 2014, carrying the weighty afro-futuristic title “Myriadmorphonicbiocorpomelodicrealityshapeshifter.” She cites a diversity of singers including Dinah Washington, Bjork, and Belita Woods as influences, evidenced in a pleasing roughness and stylistic freedom in her voice, without the sparkly, melisma-happy blandness that infects too many contemporary R. & B. singers. Listen to “Mrs. Marley”: there’s a swampy bluesy-ness that shows she has digested Clinton’s more organic Funkadelic lessons, not just the catchier Parliament dance hits. Over minimalist percussion and an insistent guitar vamp, her voice spins ahead of the beat with a jumble of words, then drags behind with a lazy drawl, occasionally fleshing out into stacked harmonies. “Bounce 2 This,” which sounds directly pulled from the wee hours of a live P-Funk show, displays a satisfying kind of cosmic slop that is too rare in perfection-focussed contemporary soul. With the intensity of a late-night jam session, Foster teases us along until finally exploding into a full-throated scream, followed by Clinton chanting a benediction: “Calling all singers and musicians. You’ve gotta have talent and ambition. … Positions open for admission.”
Foster’s Web site also offers snippets of some alluring new tracks. “Respect” features the kind of catchy backbeat and half-spoken lyrics that everyone from Janelle Monáe (“Dance Apocalyptic”) to Meghan Trainor (“All About That Bass”) has been banking on recently, but at a slightly slower, more syncopated tempo that almost feels like Chuck Brown go-go before it breaks into a jump swing bridge. There is no word on when the next album will appear; hopefully it won’t take the fourteen years that passed between D’Angelo records. With the rising buzz around her work, it most likely won’t need another Kickstarter campaign.
Much like Coltrane used his very different apprenticeships with Davis and Monk to develop his own voice, I am curious about how the time in the studio and on the stage with D’Angelo will add to Clinton’s tutelage and influence Foster’s own work. It can be difficult for an artist with such a wide palette of influences and abilities to avoid pastiche and craft a wholly individual sound. Foster’s music is still a work in progress, and the various pressures of the music industry could lead her in any number of directions, but her talent and lineage offer tantalizing potential for something special to come, something that will continue to do her mentors proud.