The cover of Ledisi’s latest record, Pieces of Me, cleverly features a head shot of the musician as an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle. The conceit suggests that the singer is a work in progress. While skillfully presented, this theme — the artist as an unfinished person who uses music to explore the creator’s different sides — is very common. What makes Ledisi interesting isn’t how she arranges the pieces of the puzzle per se. It’s the appeal of the separate pieces and that they can be rearranged without ever altering the meaning of the whole.
As a performance artist, Mel Andringa has shown (e.g., “Puzzle Pictures”) jigsaw puzzle manufacturers use only a limited number of cut-out patterns. It’s not just that individual puzzles may just have different pictures on them but that someone with patience and a good eye can interchange the pieces to create collage type works of surprising interest and creativity. The template is the same, as is the number of pieces and their arrangements, but within the confined specifications, new, inspiring art can be made.
Ledisi uses clichéd song ideas as tropes and canned rhythms as instrumental arrangements while she sings about the importance of being true to oneself as a special person. Despite the seeming paradox, it works. Ledisi offers a positive vibe in an inspiring and infectious voice. To hear her is to be convinced.
From the very first track that serves as the title song, Ledisi employs tired and corny lyrics (i.e., “ Like every woman I know / I’m complicated fo sho / But when I love, I love til there’s no love no mo”), but she sings them with such passion that the listener cannot help but be swayed. The mechanical drum machine that counts out the beat works as a martial aid as Ledisi marches into a better world where she can be her real, beautiful self.
Even when she’s in a destructive mode, she does so only because the other person is trying to hold her back. Consider the delightful diatribe, “Shut Up”. Ledisi offers a litany of charges against her detractor in the guise of that person’s negativity about her (“You’ll never be what you want to be / And you’ll never get so far”). As the song title says, she just wants that person to be quiet so she can proceed achieving her dream. Ledisi sings the whole song to a mechanical drum and clap rhythm that allows her voice to soar without the listener ever losing the beat. This offers the aural impression that the singer is grounded in reality even as she flies. The quality of her vocals serves as convincing proof that she can transcend life’s limitations.
That’s why the mix seems perfectly natural when this song blends into the next one, which contains the opposite situation, albeit one that is still ardently positivel. “Shine” thanks a friend who encouraged Ledisi to be all that she could. Ledisi’s appreciation is as fervent as her previous sentiment of getting her attacker off her back. I guess they are all just pieces of her — but in this jigsaw puzzle, all of the pieces seem somewhat interchangeable. That may sound disparaging, but the fact that Ledisi can rise above the mundane words and music suggests the enormous power of her vocal talents.