When I hear people critiquing D’Angelo’s third and most recent album, 2014’s Black Messiah, the criticism I hear most is that his vocals are buried in the mix. You don’t hear him. You hear the music. The song most often saddled with this complaint is the second track from the album, “1,000 Deaths.” I’ve heard, “He has such a beautiful voice. Why does he do that?” My answer to that is simple: Because he’s D’Angelo and he’s earned the right to make music that sounds however the hell he wants it to sound. You want “1,000 Deaths” simplified? Watered down? Here:
This is a demo of “1,000 Deaths” that leaked long before Black Messiah was released. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a cool track. I love what’s happening with the guitar on this version. But the drums are far more generic and the vocals sound like a demo because that’s what it is. D took the sublime chaos of the album version and stripped it away. Here’s my problem: I love the chaos. I need the chaos. “1,000 Deaths” isn’t supposed to be a laid back tiptoe through the tulips. D’Angelo is signing about being a freedom fighter grappling with fear. He’s afraid that if he’s called upon to face a situation that might force him to look death in the eye that he’ll back down. He doesn’t want to be a coward. He’s asking Yehushua for strength. He’s channeling Fred Hampton and Khalid Abdul Muhammad. He’s singing “I won’t nut up when I get thick in the crunch because a coward dies a thousand times, but a soldier only dies just once.” The track doesn’t call for D’Angelo to be crooning over a crisp, quantized drum machine. Shit is supposed to be messy. “1,000 Deaths” is a masterpiece and it would be a lesser piece of work if it was cleaned up to sound like everything else. The strength of “1,000 Deaths” is in its unique mess. There isn’t another song in D’Angelo’s catalog that sounds like it.
Most of my favorite artists have the ability to play any genre of music with equal skill. Even better, they blend sounds and create something completely that defies genre. Prince was the master. You can’t call him a rock artist or an R&B artist. He’s Prince. D’Angelo was slapped with the Neo-soul label early in his career. “Urban alternative” as the Grammys lazily called it. Progressive R&B. Whatever you want to call it, D’Angelo is taking a blow torch to that label on “1,000 Deaths.” It’s fast, gritty, filthy rock and roll, but my ear hears some avant garde Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis here. While muffled vocals, electric guitar, and other sounds that I find difficult to identify muddy the track, Questlove’s bass and snare steadily pulsate underneath the chaos. The one constant. The drums thumping like a heartbeat. Tell me that’s not taken directly from the “Pharaoh’s Dance” playbook. There’s a time and place for Kind of Blue. The time is most of the time and the place is everywhere. Sometimes you just need that Bitches Brew, though. I’ve also seen comparisons to There’s a Riot Goin’ On era Sly Stone, but I hear Miles. D’Angelo has a myriad of beautiful music featuring crystal clear, silky vocals. Just let me have the stunning chaos of “1,000 Deaths” with vocals that occasionally sound like they were screamed through a walkie-talkie and stop complaining that his vocals are difficult to understand. I reject your foolish complaints. One YouTube commenter on the “1,000 Deaths” demo said, “I love the quality of this version better; it sounds wayyy cleaner than the one on Black Messiah where the mixing sounds rushed and unfinished.” Rushed and unfinished? Get the fuck out of here. The demo sounds bland and lazy. Demos usually do sound bland and lazy. They’re demos. The Black Messiah version is meticulously crafted. Of course, shame on me for reading the comments underneath anything on the internet. That’s my mistake.
If I’m gonna shit on the commenters on the demo track I have to give love to the commenters on the YouTube page of the album version. The real ones know. “1,000 Deaths” is absolutely one of my favorite D’Angelo tracks. A brilliant change of pace from one of the great artists of our time. I’m gonna keep today’s post brief because I feel I’ve said what I need to say. The song speaks for itself. When I play “1,000 Deaths” I feel like I’m ready to run through a brick wall. The shit gets me fired up. I can’t say that about too many D’Angelo songs. I definitely can’t say it about tomorrow’s song. Tomorrow we get a cool blues track that could benefit from some of the grit and grime you hear on “1,000 Deaths.” We’ll get into it in 24 hours. Until then, enjoy Tuesday: The worst day of the week. That’s right. Tuesdays are worse than Mondays. Monday is a fresh start to the week. Tuesday is no man’s land. Hopefully today’s D’Angelo track helps you get through it. Good day to you.