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Channeling My Inner Meshell

November 14, 2009

For those of you with short attention spans, let me cut to the chase:  Meshell Ndegeocello makes amazing music.  She’s released eight albums since 1993 and each one of them is excellent.  If you don’t listen to her music, go buy every one of her albums right now, lock yourself in a room with your music player of choice and a good set of headphones, and listen to each LP one after the other.  Bliss will ensue and you will die happy.  Thanks for reading, good night.

Anyone who is interested in reading my defense of this position, read on.  Meshell released her first album, Plantation Lullabies, in 1993 as the first female artist signed to Madonna’s then-fledgling Maverick record label.  Her debut spawned her a certified solo hit single in “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” and led her to a great degree of fawning from the music press.  Her next move was to duet with John Mellencamp on Van Morrison’s “Wild Nights”, which gave Mellencamp his biggest hit in years.  Although Meshell wasn’t considered a superstar after this, she certainly was bankable  by 1995 and considered a major pop artist.

Within this context, Meshell challenged the pop and R&B world by recording Peace Beyond Passion, released in 1996.  This was an album that had a definite groove and was certainly funky, but it had a message at the same time.  Opening with the lyric “Maybe Judas was the better man, and Mary made a version just to save face”, Meshell laid her spiritual struggles out for all to see.  This viewpoint served as the backdrop for the album, with songs like “Deuteronomy: Niggerman”, “Ecclesiastes:  Free My Heart”, and “Leviticus: Faggot” using traditional Christian concepts to examine her views on the failings of modern Christianity.  Her search culminates in “God Shiva”, written with former Revolution-ary Wendy Melvoin, stating “God Shiva is my supreme reality.”  After all the heavy religious philosphy, the album then switches to more human relationship concerns with the funky “Who Is He and What Is He to You” (with a sly background organ by former almost-Beatle Billy Preston) and other related tracks.  With the dichotomy of spiritual versus sexual desire dominating Peace Beyond Passion, Meshell bares her soul for all of us to see, and this struggle is evident through much of her later soul-oriented work.

Meshell’s post-Peace work takes the listener on an unparalleled musical journey.  The gorgeous, jazz-inflected heartbreak of Bitter (1999) shows Meshell at her best as a pop music composer and arranger despite the dark subject matter.  She’s yet to make an album with such lush arrangements.  The hip-hop/funk stylings of Cookie: The Antropological Mixtape (2002) demonstrate her ability to use hip-hop to further her musical vision and is her hardest-hitting work.  It is the album where she absoutely lets it all go, from the monkey with headphones on the cover to the rawness of “Dead Nigga Blvd.”, Meshell uses her anger to craft an amazing musical statement.  The Barry White late night soul of Comfort Woman (2003) finds Meshell looking for a hookup and finding a spiritual connection through sensual pursuits.  The pure jazz of The Spirit Music Jamia (2005) takes Meshell’s spiritual journey to a completely non-lyrical level where the music itself asks the questions without the need for spoken word.  2007’s The World Has Made Me The Man of My Dreams turns Meshell’s jazz stylings toward a more pop/R&B song structure (and at times is decidedly weird) but the music is nothing less than amazing.  Meshell dropped Devil’s Halo earlier this year and it is her first straight-up R&B album since Plantation Lullabies, with only one song (an amazing cover of Ready For the World’s “Love You Down”) clocking in at over 5 minutes.  Devil’s Halo reminds us that with all of Meshell’s metaphysical concerns, she’s a musician and a music-lover first and foremost.

Anchoring all of Meshell’s work is her background as a bass guitar player, which means that all of her songs are rhythmically strong.  You’ll find yourself unconsciously bobbing your head to the beat or swaying in your seat because the groove is so infectious.  But Meshell also has range, from reggae to rock to jazz to straight up funk, she can utilize whatever style best fits her needs to craft amazing songs. You never know what to expect and that’s what ultimately makes her music so satisfying.  I don’t say this about many artists, but I highly recommend all of her albums for anyone who likes their R&B a little slanted.  I promise, she won’t let you down.


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