NEW YORK (AFP) - After a wait of nearly 15 years, D'Angelo is making a Second Coming of sorts with Black Messiah, a hard-charging attack on racial injustice that challenges listeners both musically and lyrically.
Released as a surprise on Monday, the long-anticipated album moves D'Angelo beyond his R&B roots to embrace the passions of protest rock at a time that demonstrations have swept the United States over police killings of unarmed African Americans in New York and Ferguson, Missouri.
D'Angelo, whose career was launched as a teenager during an amateur night at New York's famed Apollo Theater, won acclaim for his funk-infused R&B and soul on his two previous albums, 1995's Brown Sugar and 2000's Voodoo, but he retreated from public view after a global tour.
Black Messiah defies easy categorisation but shows clear similarities to his sometime mentor Prince, with the now 40-year-old D'Angelo powering his funk beats with a strong dose of electric guitar and an impressive falsetto.
Bringing into focus the album's messianic overtones, he starts the song 1,000 Deaths with a snippet from a fiery African American preacher who rails against white presentations of Jesus Christ - a blond-haired, blue-eyed "cracker Jesus," in the pastor's words, using a derogatory term for unrefined white person.
D'Angelo builds off the sample with a heavy beat and a guitar solo. His lyrics deliver a message of stridency, with the chorus, "A coward dies 1,000 times / But a soldier only dies just once."
In a song co-written with the producer and DJ Questlove, D'Angelo again questions the nature of struggle on The Charade, singing, "All we wanted was a chance to talk / 'Stead we've only got outlined in chalk."
He stays experimental musically throughout the album even when the subject matter turns from politics to romance. On Really Love, he starts off gently with flamenco guitar before the funk beat breaks through.
Releasing a statement at a listening party for the album in New York, he acknowledged that he was courting controversy with the title Black Messiah but insisted he was not portraying himself as some R&B Jesus.
"It can easily be misunderstood. Many will think it's about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I'm calling myself a Black Messiah," he wrote.
"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 in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen."
The surprise release came on the same day as a much more expected album by hip hop star Nicki Minaj.
The Pinkprint marks a return to the roots of one of the most successful female rappers, whose career has soared in the past several years through more mainstream pop songs and collaborations with superstars such as Justin Bieber.
Minaj, 32, goes intensely personal on her third studio album. On All Things Go, she speaks of coping with the violent death of a cousin and hints at coming to terms with a past abortion, rapping: "My child with Aaron would have been 16 any minute."
The Trinidadian-born New Yorker also defends her rise to fame, rapping: "Let me make this clear / I'm not difficult / I'm just about my business / I'm not into fake industry parties, and fake agendas / Rock with people for how they make me feel, not what they give me."
Despite the introspection on the album, she initially made headlines for a very different reason - what critics saw as Nazi overtones on the video for her single Only.
On the video, Minaj appears as a dictator on a throne with red-and-white banners bearing the letters of her Young Money label. Minaj apologised, saying she had not intended the slightest Nazi association.