‘Hearing’ Meshell Again
by Mark Anthony Neal
Part of the initial appeal of Meshell Ndegeocello, one off the first artists signed to Madonna’s Maverick label, was her effortless exoticism. Arriving on the scene in 1993 with Plantation Lullabies and seemingly from a nether post somewhere between Trey Ellis’s “new black aesthetic” and Biggie’s “Big Poppa,” it wasn’t difficult for Ndegeocello, like Dionne Farris or PM Dawn’s Prince Be, to be easily cited as that other-type Negro—whatever that happened to be on any given day. But baby-gurl could pluck it with the best of them—Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Nathan East, Larry Graham, and of course Bootsy—so the regular, round-the-way Negros took notice. Wasn’t a black radio station in the country that wasn’t featuring “Outside Your Door” on their Quiet Storm program in those days. For the white folk not likely to venture down the radio dial, there was that duet with John Cougar Mellencamp, flipping the old Van Morrison classic “Wild Night” into an MTV staple. It was the only whiff a pop chart that Ndegeocello would ever get.
When Ndegeocello returned in 1996 with Peace Beyond Passion, courting controversy with a decidedly innocuous indictment of homophobia—by contemporary standards at least—on “Leviticus: Faggot,” her sound was lean, fierce and muscular, driving originals like “The Way” and her gender-bending cover of Bill Withers’ “Who is He and What is He to You?.” Folk might not have known what to do with the message and even less with the messenger, but it was clear that if you gave the woman more than a few moments, you too would be moving your ass.
With a winning formula in the mix—an old adage really, “free your mind and your ass will follow”—Ndegeocello played against expectation, making the first of several artistic statements. Bitter, her 1999 follow-up to Peace Beyond Passion, wasn’t so much a recording as it was musical brooding session and with it she had my ears and my heart. I have not listened to anything quite the same since, finding disparate passions in the music of Terry Callier, Laura Nyro, Alana Davis, Chocolate Genius, Lizz Wright, Bill Withers (quiet as it’s kept) and a host of others whose most common resonances were in registers far beneath the surface. What has been clear over the last decade is that Ndgeocello herself, has been most comfortable when she trust her ears instead of her body, so that even when she made that last stab at other-chartly and political relevance with Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, it was the darker hues of “Jabril” and “Earth” that told on her—and on us for that matter.
Seems as if 2003’s Comfort Woman—an overlooked gem in any era, like Robert Marley’s Kaya—marks the beginning of Ndegeocello’s loss of faith in her ears, though as the primary composer and conductor of Dance of the Infidels (2005) she conjured, with Lalah Hathaway, beauty unrequited on the slow as death cover of “When Did You Leave Heaven.” With Devil’s Halo, her new recording on the Downtown/Mercer Street label, Ndegeocello’s faith in her ears and our ability to 'hear' her is renewed.
While there are still hints of the Emo rock that marked 2007’s The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, Devil’s Halo settles on a mood somewhere in between The World… and Bitter. The bassist remains lyrically provocative throughout—Ernest Hardy notes this ditty from “Lola:” “a wife’s just a whore with a diamond ring”—but here is wordless quality about Ndegeocello’s vocal performance. Tracks like “Tie One On” and the twangy (in the tradition of Craig Street’s work with Lizz Wright and Cassandra Wilson) “Crying in My Beer,” are simply beautiful in their starkness; the lyrics largely served as adornments. Tellingly, the title track is an instrumental that Ndegeocello wrote when she was a teen growing up in Washington, DC.
Though Ndegeocello has long distanced herself from mainstream contemporary R&B, her most striking artistic statement on Devil Halo comes from the R&B world of the 1980s. Ready for the World’s classic slow drag, “Love You Down” was ripe for a post-auto-tune update, but Ndegeocello gives the song a breathtaking new edge—dreamy and urgent. Ndegeocello tells music journalist John Murph, “Love You Down” is a song that “brings up fond memories. It has a great melody. Also I had a great time trying to put the song through my [artistic] filter. I hope people hear the love in my version.”