Take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside
Let your days slip away come with me and ride
With those lyrics D’Angelo announced to the world that his 14-year hiatus was over. “Ain’t That Easy” is the opening track from D’Angelo and The Vanguard’s 2014 album Black Messiah. I’ve already documented the long wait for Black Messiah here on the D’aily, but in case you missed it, there was a gap of nearly 15 years between D’Angelo’s second and third album. The first time I heard “Ain’t That Easy” was December 15, 2014, when I pressed play on a new D’Angelo album and felt what I can only describe as thrilling disbelief.
It was a new D’Angelo album. The first time I listened to Brown Sugar and Voodoo were like religious experiences. I remember exactly where I was. What was happening in my life at that time. I’m envious of that younger version of me because that blissfully ignorant bastard didn’t know how lucky he was to be savoring new D’Angelo for the first time. The first time I heard Black Messiah I was… *record scratch* …disappointed?
Disappointed isn’t the right word. I went with that word for dramatic effect. I wanted to give you a brief moment of, “What the fuck was this fool thinking?” Distracted would be a more appropriate word to describe my first listen. Here’s the reason: When I heard Brown Sugar for the first time I was on summer break. I was a 19-year old college student. My life at that time consisted of occasional classes and a part-time job during the week followed by college parties with whatever sibling or friend I decided to crash with on the weekend. When Voodoo dropped I was an unemployed 23-year-old college dropout (when I said “occasional” classes I meant it) living with my buddies and I had plenty of time to kill between job interviews.
Black Messiah was different. I was a married 38-year-old father of three with a demanding full-time job. Think about that shit for a second. I lived an entire life between those two albums. We all did. Damn. Anyway, D’Angelo or some diabolical decision maker in his camp believed that a good time for us to hear his music for the first time would be a Monday, or overnight on a Sunday. Under normal circumstances I would’ve certainly waited up for it, but on this Sunday night I was under the weather and I had a busy Monday at work ahead. I made the difficult but mature decision to actually get a decent night of sleep. The album would still be there in the morning, right? I’d have the rest of my life to listen to it. On that dreary Monday morning I got out of bed still feeling like shit. I gamely (foolishly?) made my way to work anyway. Once I got busy at my desk I grabbed some earbuds and decided that this was the appropriate time to listen to the new D’Angelo. What was I thinking? I didn’t want to wait any longer.
Sitting at a desk attempting to work through countless interruptions is no way to absorb new music. D’Angelo deserved better. I gave up on it quickly. I do recall coming out of that brief listening session feeling mildly disappointed and a little nervous that this new D record was not going to live up to the lofty standards I’d built up in my mind. That disappointment had nothing to do with the music but was the result of fielding frustrating IT trouble tickets while attempting to listen.
That night after having dinner with my wife and kids I told them that I wasn’t feeling well and that I was going to lie down. The part about not feeling well was true. Did I need to lie down? Eh… I needed to hear that new D’Angelo. I’m pretty sure my wife was 100% aware of what was happening and knew I needed that time so she occupied the kids while I escaped. A selfless gesture I’ll never forget. I went to my bedroom with an iPhone and some Bose noise canceling headphones and gave Black Messiah the listen it deserved.
My immediate reaction to hearing “Ain’t That Easy” is that I accidentally pressed play on “Foxey Lady” instead. The first 10 seconds of “Ain’t That Easy” and “Foxey Lady” aren’t identical, but they’re similar. I can’t shake that whenever I hear the song. My second reaction was that D’Angelo was on some Funkadelic shit. The word that best describes the vocals that open this track is freaky. D’s vocal tracks span multiple octaves. Soon the haunting vocals fade leaving us a funky, mid-tempo jam. As promised, “Ain’t That Easy” is a bit more guitar-heavy than I was accustomed to from D’Angelo but it’s a welcome addition to the repertoire. Eventually you’re hit repeatedly with a chorus stating, “You can’t leave me. It ain’t that easy.” I wonder, is he singing about a significant other or me and the rest of his restless fan base? I can’t leave him. Nor do I want to.
Here’s the burning question I have about this track: There’s an emphatic slapping sound on the 4 of every other measure. It’s there for nearly the entire track. Just before the slap there’s another sound. It hits every time about 3/4 of a beat before the slap. It’s killing me trying to figure out what that noise is, but I have a theory: It’s the exact sound you hear when someone makes a nice, direct break on a tightly racked set of pool balls. Was someone playing pool nearby when this track was being recorded and they just left the sound in? Did someone just like the sound and include it to drive me crazy? Why is it even there? Get me Russell Elevado’s contact information now. I need to get to the bottom of this. These are the thoughts that drive me crazy when I listen to music in headphones. I can’t not hear that sound whenever I listen to “Ain’t That Easy.”
My December 15, 2014, Black Messiah listening session lasted several hours. I listened to the album on repeat as long as I could. I loved it so much I resorted to hyperbole the next night and wrote an extensive blog post boldly claiming that Black Messiah was the best album ever recorded. That was on a previous website and is no longer available, though I wish it was. I’d love to understand why I felt that way after only 24 hours. I backpedal on that claim only slightly now. Voodoo is better. It’s close, though. “Ain’t That Easy” isn’t my favorite track on the album, but it’s a worthy opener. A leisurely stroll to lower your guard before “1,000 Deaths” punches you in the face. I leave you today with D’Angelo and The Vanguard performing “Ain’t That Easy” at the 2015 North Sea Jazz Festival. Play this video to start your day and I promise you’ll leave the house with a smile on your face…or you’ll watch the rest of the concert and be late for work. Either way, it’s worth it.