SNL’s latest episode, hosted by J.K. Simmons, was a serviceable installment buoyed by the talent and presence of its musical guest. D’Angelo, the R&B legend whose latest full-length, Black Messiah, dominated 2014’s album-of-the-year lists, made a rare live television appearance to turn in one of the more stirring, virtuosic SNL performances in recent memory.
First up was “Really Love,” a freewheeling, light-as-a-feather ballad that floats over a bouncy bassline and some flamenco guitar. The performance understandably lacks the textural complexity of the album version—it’d be hard to replicate such a painstaking, perfectionist studio process—but D’Angelo’s falsetto is spot-on and the band is in sublime form.
The real highlight, though, was the night’s second song: “The Charade” is a somber, incredibly moving tune, and undoubtedly Black Messiah’s most political statement. Accordingly, D’Angelo sang in front of a chalk outline (a reference to the line “All we wanted was a chance to talk/ ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk”) and a band bedecked in “I Can’t Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. Their performance is a masterclass in escalation, with the song’s rising tempo cresting in a frenzied guitar-solo conclusion.