D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s new album Black Messiah, released to the surprise of almost everyone a week ago, isn’t supposed to be about sex. Its release was bumped up, after all, in response to protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and other unarmed African-American men. And yet it is a very sexy album. Just listen to it. As Ava Tunnicliffe wrote in Nylon, “If there was only one word to describe the album, it would be sexy. In three words, it’s really, really sexy.” This has become something of a consensus position since the album fell from the sexy, sexy heavens, at least if numerous tweets like this one are any indication:
But why is it a sexy album? It seems like a question designed to drain the very sexiness from the thing itself, but it can actually tell us some interesting things about the psychology of music and sex. So here are a few insights about Black Messiah’s, well, potent effects on its listeners.
Musical Spontaneity Is Sexy, and Black Messiah Has It
According to Tony Lemieux, a researcher at Georgia State who studies the social psychology of music, part of the reason for Black Messiah’s sexiness is its mix of well-known R&B elements with some surprising flourishes. “There’s a familiarity about the sound and the music, and yet it does some kinds of surprising and unexpected things,” he said. On parts of “Really Love,” for example, someone is whispering enticingly in the background — presumably about something sexy, though for all the listener knows they could be reciting a recipe for pound cake. And on “Betray My Heart,” there are “aspects that mix up the rhythm a little bit that kind of draw you in, that cause you to listen a bit more closely.”
You do need some aspect of familiarity in pop music, explained Lemieux, and it’s not like Black Messiah isn’t operating within some well-established genres. But for songs to really deliver a visceral punch, there also have to be elements that cause people not just to bob their heads along, but to occasionally sit up straight and take notice.
Black Messiah Piggybacks on Past R&B Sexiness to Create Present-Day R&B Sexiness
Gordon Gallup Jr., an evolutionary psychologists at SUNY Albany who studies “embedded reproductive messages” in music, explained that lyrics are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a song’s sexiness. Black Messiah’s lyrics aren’t all that sexy (with some notable exceptions, like “Sugah Daddy”), and it’s often hard to make them out anyway. “When you listen to it, a lot of the lyrics are unintelligible because they get masked by the instrumentation and/or the accent of the artist, and nonetheless people are profoundly affected,” said Gallup. “So what people are responding to are these nonverbal cues.”
In other words, when you hear sexy music, you feel sexy. It sounds circular, if not tautological, but that’s how psychological associations work: R&B songs do tend to have more explicitly sexual lyrics than other kinds of music, Gallup explained, so after years of hearing those sorts of songs, our brains are naturally attuned to think sexy thoughts when familiar R&B elements kick in, regardless of the song in question’s lyrics.
We’re Very Predisposed to See D’Angelo and His Music As Sexy
As Lemieux pointed out, when many people think of D’Angelo, they think of this famous video:
Theories of Black Messiah sexiness that don’t come back to the artist himself, in other words, can only get us so far. “All of those things are certainly factoring in here, but I would definitely not discount the identity of the performer here and the associative networks that hearing him or seeing him brings up,” said Lemieux. “If you heard this and someone said ‘This is Joe Smith from Peoria,’ it’s not going to do the same thing.” Music and sexual attraction both rely on the brain’s ability to connect A to B to C — and you can’t always explain, in a reductive way, exactly why these connections take place, but once they form they can be rather formidable.
So in general, while sexy albums are usually mostly about sex, Black Messiah might be an exception partially because its singer had already carved out such a sexy niche for himself. The divide between what the album is about and listeners’ visceral reaction to it is an interesting one, but for now the only appropriate response I can come up with is to queue it up again.