One of the highlights of our April weekend in New York City was catching singer Meshell Ndegeocello performing her 1999 album Bitter. Telling the folks back home elicited a vague smile and the comment, “Well, whatever happened to Meshell Ndegeocello?”
Well, actually nothing happened. That describes her career in a nutshell. Meshell was the victim of a fairly common dilemma for many artists: She played her strongest cards first and her follow-ups weren’t as strong as her first efforts when critics were calling her “the future of the funk” and “one of the artists that really matter.”
I’ll argue to my dying day that her first two albums, the 1993 début Plantation Lullabies and the 1996 follow-up, Peace Beyond Passion are among the finest pair of freshman/sophomore efforts any musician has ever made. Not since Marvin Gaye’s double shot of sex, seduction and sensuality, Let Get It On and I Want You has there been someone who sang about Black-on-Black love as Meshell. The fact that a bald, bass plucking bisexual badass was singing these incredibly sultry songs only added to the allure.
Plantation is simply an epic opener. I played it continuously when it came out in 1993 and 17 years later it’s still fresher than any of the Auto-Tuned up the ass garbage on the radio. Listening to it and Peace Beyond Passion is like rereading Watchmen; I pick up something new and nuanced that was always there but just slightly out of immediate notice.
If Plantation is a pro-Black Pride and Love album, Peace is about sexual politics and gender issues. As co-produced by David Gamson, Peace Beyond Passion doesn’t lecture in a grab-you-by-the-collar and club-you-over-the-head kind of way, but with subtle restraint. Yet Meshell is upping the stakes in an unmistakable way. “Leviticus: Faggot” rips into homophobia, “Niggerman” is less provocative than its, the remake of Bill Withers “Who is He and What is He to You?” takes on a whole new meaning when it’s a woman singing about another woman (or could it be a man being checked out by another man?) and the shimmering, sensual, “Stay” which along with “Soul Searchin’ (I Wanna Know If It’s Mine) ” might be my two favorite Meshell songs.
If you let me have you just this once I promise never to want you anymore
‘Cuz what’s happening now feels so good
And the forbidden always arouses temptations
Come here let me have you
Ooh baby come on let me
But ooh, some awfully bad shit must have went down in Miss Meshell’s private life during the three years between Passion and 1999’s Bitter. Gone was co-producer Gamson and in was a much sparser, stripped-down sound provided by k.d. lang producer, Craig Street. Bitter isn’t so much a bad album as much as it’s no fun at all. The hummable moments are few and the danceable ones are non-existent. It’s essentially the chronicle of a failed love affair and a really messy one as well. An intensely personal album, it feels like a peek into Meshell’s private diary. It is not an easy listen though there are moments of brilliance. Bitter is the musical equivalent of Schindler’s List: Listen to it once or twice every few years and you’re good.
It’s a little weird Meshell’s biggest “hit” isn’t even one of her own songs, but a duet with John Mellencamp in a remake of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” that got all the way to #3 on Billboard. Then again, maybe not so weird since like Mellencamp she never wanted to be a pop singer and she never wanted to sing pop songs. Marvin put the moon-in-June tunes behind him when he started crooning, “You Sure Love to Ball” and like him, Meshell has always been more interested in grown-up lovemaking than horny teenagers fumbling around.
After Bitter, I only listened to Meshell’s albums sporadically. Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape was a confused mess and I don’t remember anything about Comfort Woman. She’s gone on to make three more albums I haven’t heard including a non-vocal jazz album. I might get around to checking them out. I might not.
It’s no mystery why Meshell Ndegeocello never became a big star. She never fit into any of the tidy little categories. Too unabashedly Black for White radio. Too blatantly bisexual for Black radio. Too weird for everybody else. It seems fitting that she was considered at one-time to join the iconoclast Black rock band Living Colour as their new bassist. How successful Meshell’s five album stint on Madonna’s Maverick Records was I can only guess, but maybe they just couldn’t figure out how or who they were supposed to sell her music to. There simply aren’t enough brave souls in the music business or open minds in the public for bad, bald, bisexual bassists.
Seeing her perform in New York was a treat and she put on a good show, but in some way it was like running into an old friend whose address you lost and the longer you talk the more you realize you don’t have much in common any more.
I wouldn’t say Meshell Ndegeocelllo peaked too soon. The star that burns the brightest and hottest doesn’t necessarily burn the longest. But oh, what a pretty light those first two albums made.