From a Billboard perspective and in the rebel language of rock narrative, the great songwriter, bassist and recordmaker Meshell Ndegeocello registers as confoundingly, demonstratively eclectic. Contrarian, even: one who runs from what the market wants her to be, one who ignores the nervous directives of label men. That story perplexes me. Reviewing her last or six or seven records (luminous gems without fail: recommendations below), what strikes me most is the coherence and consistency of her vision, her ever-deepening command of a unique progressive/roots, organic/electro idiom.
Starting, somewhat arbitrarily, with 2007’s brilliant and broadly collaborative The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, I see someone who has architected a three-dimensional musical world in which the cerebral, minimalist groove genius of Prince meets lavish atmospherics and sonic manipulation, jazz-informed harmony that seldom says “jazz” explicitly and a lyrical/vocal persona far ahead of the curve in the ways it addresses identity: modulating selves not in the broad-canvas character invention of sympathetic artists like Bowie or Gabriel, but rather in subtly morphic ways, mirroring the deep integration of traditional and experimental, rooted and futuristic, in the music.
After that record, Meshell commits to a single ensemble and deepens and refines the vision, trimming excesses and finding the hard kernel of her sound on Devil’s Halo, Weather, Comet, Come to Me and more: all conceptually differentiated records, but all of a piece as well. On the evidence of the last decade, Meshell can go just about anywhere in music while staying within herself and within the coordinates she has plotted, neither chasing trends nor fleeing them. It’s something pretty close to the definition of “mature artist” to know the nature of your spaceship and how to pilot it with nerve and range. She’s there, and she’s hardly resting.
But there’s a big truth to the contrarian and type-busting narrative as well, and to find it, we have to go back to the last century – to 1993 and 1996, when the stunningly nimble bassist burst onto the scene with pair of simply badass groove records, records that swung from wide Bootsy funk on one hand to smooth jazz and R&B sophistication on the other, while drawing plenty from the hip hop renaissance into the middle of which Plantation Lullabies and Peace beyond Passion were released. Ndegeocello came armed with a set of largely spoke-sung, politically volatile songs, laying down some genuinely transgressive and inflammatory spiel, Gil Scott-Heronlike, over a lithe, diverse bank of vibrant grooves. You were there, right? It was impossible not to be struck hard by Meshell Ndegeocello.
That’s what adds such thick irony to her story of defying expectations: She was already allowed/expected to be transgressive and inflammatory. What more latitude could an artist want? Well, LOL! How about, in her own words, the right not to have to be funky? The latitude to develop the subtlety and range, the idiosyncratic harmonic and melodic dimension and the vulnerable, searching quality in her music? The license to collaborate across all lines? The latitude to be broadly musical and experimental and not typed by race? Was it too much to ask?
The great news is that she did what she wanted (see above), she worked hard and has developed a vehicle for herself beyond type, worlds beyond that first, race-toned stamp of fame. The mixed news is that she might have prematurely truncated the multi-platinum phase of her career by doing so, and you might not know these records as well as you should. “Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support,” says Ndegeocello.
The whole contour of the story lends her new record enough purpose to knock you out. Ventriloquism is a historically focused set of covers. Ndegeocello has been doings covers – from radical readings to subtle recontextualizations – from the very beginning of her career, so she is adept at the act of finding new songs buried in the old ones. What is so poignant about Ventriloquism is its powerful cultural messaging. The set is composed entirely of songs that redefined black pop and R&B in the ’80s and ’90s. Prince is represented here, as are Janet Jackson, TLC, Tina Turner, George Clinton and a number of hitmakers without quite that level of staying power.
The meaning of Ventriloquism is so subtle and potent that I am loath to try to articulate it myself. Again and again across the album, Meshell finds the vulnerable undersides, the eccentricity, the weirdness and the sweetness in songs generally understood to be dance and party anthems. A common strategy is to downshift: You’ve never heard quite so introspective a reading of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” for example, and the skittish, surreal Django swing applied to Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” is delightfully absurd and effective. “I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.” On the moody and dramatic reading of Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies When You’re Having Fun,” Meshell brings Janet onto her own progressive/ambient planet, revealing an elegance and gravity to the song that you might have missed the first time around.
Ventriloquism doesn’t require a social thesis to be a good album, but it happens to have one anyway: something really keen and nuanced about creative license and resistance to race-triggered expectations. It’s the kind of statement that only a fully realized artist could effectively make. To reinforce the point without browbeating, Ndegeocello is donating a portion of the profits from Ventriloquism to the American Civil Liberties Union. And the real kicker is this: While the dust still settles on Ventriloquism and we’re still sussing it out, Meshell has released “The Militant Ecologist,” a gorgeous Nino Rotaesque duet with everyone’s favorite guitarist Marc Ribot. Moving right along now…
Celebrating the release of Ventriloquism, area resident Meshell Ndegeocello and her band perform on Saturday, October 20 at the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater on the campus of Bard College. Tickets cost $25 and are available by calling the box office at (845) 758-7900 or by visiting http://fishercenter.bard.edu.