In 2014, the funk/neo-soul musician D’Angelo released his third album after a 14-year hiatus. Critics commended its politically conscious lyrics and hailed the album as an experimental soul masterpiece. Black Messiah’s first single, “Really Love,” was the first song of his that I heard, and by the end of those six minutes I felt the giddiness of having stumbled upon something that promises the sublime and resists rationalization. I was also sonically adrift, washed over by a warm wave of multi-layered vocals, earthy guitar and genre-bending sounds.
“Really Love” is a declaration of affection on a laid-back, lilting jazz-funk groove. “When you call my name / when you look at me / I open up instantly,” D’Angelo whispers. He expresses gratitude for his lover’s kindness while confessing “I’m not an easy man to overstand / but girl you’re patient with me.” Unsurprisingly, D’Angelo is as erotic as he is romantic. “When you touch me there / when you make me tingle / when our nectars mingle / doo doo wah, I’m in really love with you.” The syntax of this latter phrase lets the words roll off the tongue. The nonchalant “yeah yeah”s and “oh oh”s in place of more verses or melisma emphasize pleasure and abandon over sense and meaning; in his songs, the “feel” is always more important than the actual words.
But don’t just groove to “Really Love.” The song is also a critique of (male) subjectivity, communication, and gratitude in romantic relationships. D’Angelo only comes in at the two-minute mark; before that, a woman speaks in Spanish while a gorgeous string section, flamenco guitar, bass, and drums coalesce into a tight groove. Translated, the lyrics mean: “Yeah, you love me? I love you very much. But you’re fucking up my life. You are very jealous. You wanted to be my owner, but I am free. You want to be my king? Me, your queen?” Her lines expose D’Angelo’s inability to see beyond himself and his dependence on her emotional labor—he needs her in order to open up, to be understood, but does not reciprocate in trust or consideration. But then why is the spoken word section in another language, when most listeners are just feeling the beat? The disjuncture between the two voices is commentary on a familiar theme, but one so implicit that the listener/lover must literally know another language to recognize it. D’Angelo, like the listeners of the song, is intoxicated by the funk of love and too hooked to actually hear his beloved. In this song, love is a zero sum game, only as liberating for the king as it is oppressive for his queen. D’Angelo’s vision of love is deeply anti-romantic—beyond verbal affirmations and his gratification, there is nothing much to being in Really Love.