[1 November 2007]
Meshell Ndegeocello is a pop anomaly, a supremely talented artist who has the goods to be truly popular but also has the ideology and integrity to doggedly follow her own path. The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, her seventh full-length album, is a fully mature and integrated record that makes the case that popular art can be both popular and artistic at the same time.
When Meshell burst on the scene in 1993 as among first new artists singed to Madonna’s “Maverick” label, she seemed like a female Sly Stone. She had undeniable grooves and a point of view on sex, race, politics, and society. That she scored one of 1994’s best singles (and videos) in duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” suggested that Meshell, a husky-voiced female African-American bass player with a close-shaved head, was the unlikeliest popular artist in America.
But by her third album, Meshell had proven resistant to either easy categorization or popular magnetism. Meshell’s aesthetic is less rhythm-and-blues or rock than it is art music that happens to use popular forms. Almost all her music is densely layered, like a polyrhythmic West African drum composition, with a sandwich of sounds and noises: instruments electric and acoustic, samples, vocal tracks in all registers and timbres, looped percussion, and otherworldly synthesis. But, from disc to disc, Meshell also genre-hopped with two funky R&B records (Plantations Lullabies, then Peace Beyond Passion), a down-hearted neo-folk album (Bitter), a groove-based hip-hop experiment (Cookie: an Anthropological Mixtape, a funk-cum-dub workout (Comfort Woman), then an outright jazz record (The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel). Fans greeted each mutation with joy and concern. Will the world finally (re) discover Ndegeocello? Will Ndegeocello finally strike for the popular jugular?
The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams is the most diverse and complete and complex work yet for Meshell. It is possibly a career highlight, a masterwork, but it is so bold and dense that it promises a generously greater tomorrow. Summarizing it would be pointless and impossible. It contains every aspect of Meshell’s career without seeming disconnected or jerky. It is like a long meal served by a multi-talented chef in which appetizers, meats and fish, delicate vegetables and pungent stews, pastries and cheeses, all hooked gloriously together.
“The Sloganeer: Paradise” grabs the ear like early Meshell. Her bass playing, rubbery, rocking, mutable, is out front along with killer drum work. She sings beautifully and ironically about a culture that sells bullshit to the point of driving us to suicide (“Can you imagine . . . utter nothingness?”), but the politics is subordinate to the groove and a set of dramatic drum breaks that stop the heart even as they shake the ass. “Elliptical” is just as memorable but utterly different. Set over an odd time signature, the tune uses mystical imagery, a guest vocalist, hand percussion, and harmonies that float as well as ring through a vocoder. When the tune sets the table for a lovely cornet solo by Graham Haynes, it’s hard to understand how the trick was turned, but it was.
The seeming cul-de-sac of Ndegeocello’s previous record, on which she barely sang and mainly featured out-jazz-cats such as Oliver Lake, turns out, here, to have been a necessary journey. “Virgo” is built on a horn line stated by flute, alto saxophone, and trombone, then turns into a fairly snappy pop tune. “Lovely Lovely” mixes flute improvising by Oliver Lake with a call-and-response groove between electric bass and organ. Then “Shirk” brings in the distinctive acoustic guitar of Pat Metheny to accompany a duet between Meshell and Oumou Sangare. The brilliant young jazz pianist Robert Glasper, who has found the rare meeting place between true acoustic jazz and hip-hop, collaborates on “Relief: A Stripper Classic”, which brings a Hendrix-like crunch to bear on a soundscape of whispers, croons, and yearning spirituality. Glasper’s piano part in the second half of the tune brings the disc to a wonderfully nostalgic close, as Meshell asks, “Will you comfort me?”
These lyric concerns about God, about sexuality, about romance and politics and the uncomfortable intersection between all these topics are as mashed-up and complex as the music. Ndegeocello is certainly savvy enough to know that she has matched her words and lyrics deftly but such that each makes the other something to be worked through and explored in every crevice. This is an artist who knows she is creating something of the pop market but not really for the pop market. It is, thus, that rare piece of pop art both ambitiously “high” and unpretentiously “low”, a perfectly American kind of genius.
Man of My Dreams is a mature summary of a career in post-modern soul. It is Meshell Ndegeocello’s most complete and fully integrated record and a defining work that in evading category seems to generate its own rules of engagement and enjoyment.