Sleeve notes: Bruce Usher on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah

Five music-lovers from the world of art and design share the
album artwork that has stuck with them since they first laid eyes
on it, and the effect the music itself had on their life and work.
First up, Bruce Usher

Bruce is a London-based designer and art director. His conceptual, research-focused designs for high-end clients often hark back to pop culture, music and artists genres.

He recently was behind the redesign of the British Journal of Photography, and will be the design director of Rough Trade’s new monthly magazine.


Here he talks about the importance of
D’Angelo’s 2014 album, Black Messiah:

“One of my favourite albums of last year (even if it was released late 2014) was D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, an album that came after 15 years of silence since his last record, and another of my favourite albums, Voodoo. Teased using what would turn out to be the album artwork; a black and white photograph of a crowd of out-stretched hands and fists raised in to the air shot on 16mm film, the imagery has immediate gravitas – particularly compared to his past releases.

Emphasised by simple, considered typography (a capitalised serif carrying the album title and artists’ names) reminiscent of something you’d expect to see on a headstone more than album, the moment captured feels immediately monumental and important. None of the subject’s faces are visible, the crowd of raised hands could really be anyone, it’s difficult to decipher whether the image depicts a protest or a party — the artwork explains the albums contradictions completely. 

As you’d expect, D’Angelo’s record is still full of beautiful, rich songs about love and relationships, with music that make you want to move, sway and put your hands up. However, around those layers of instruments, all recorded on reams of analogue tape, many of the songs’ lyrics carry strong messages of protest against racial violence in America. Black Messiah’s songs make you want to dance and think simultaneously – probably summed up best by The Charade.

Black Panther

Interestingly, D’Angelo had wanted to commission Emory Douglas, a past minister of culture for the Black Panthers and art director for the group’s newspaper to illustrate the artwork, but there wasn’t time. When shown the image (actually captured during the Afropunk festival in Brooklyn when the audience were asked to put their hands up in protest) D’Angelo described it as “symbolic of praise in church,” yet another interpretation of the image. 

Either way, whilst the sleeve doesn’t possess the iconic imagery associated with the illustrations of Emory Douglas, the artwork is more subtle and less immediate in it’s protest, much like the lyrics woven by D’Angelo into the record, which for me, makes it the perfect fit.”

See more work from Bruce Usher
Read more Sleeve Notes

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