From this listener’s perspective, the ideal cover album balances out three types of songs. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, there are cover versions that make perfect sense, one where the original artist and the current are so obviously in the same creative vein that it would have been shocking for them not to overlap at some point, in some way. Second are the obscurities, the slightly deeper cuts that, while recognizable to some, weren’t songs you gave much thought to at any point, even if the artists are big names. Third are the unexpected, the songs you never would have thought to associate with the covering artist at hand. These are the risks, and they’re what makes or breaks a cover album. How well can an artist take something so far outside her usual style and make it her own while still showing it the respect it deserves?
On Ventriloquism, a portion of the profits of which will go to the ACLU, Meshell Ndegeocello pours her heart and soul into renditions of ’80s and ’90s songs that fall into all three of these categories. The album opens with a cover of Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam’s punchy “I Wonder If I Take You Home”; while Ndegeocello’s ethereal voice lends it a smoother, more quietly seductive tone, her band keeps the beats sharp and the energy high. A sensual version of Al B. Sure!’s new jack swing hit “Nite and Day” pulls the track out of 1988 – the original is nothing if not a product of its time – and sculpts it into a sensual slow jam with a more timeless quality and some spacey echo effects, making it one of the most quintessentially Ndegeocello-esque tracks on the album.
Another track that makes perfect sense comes next: “Sometimes It Snows in April”, a track that honors the tenderness and tempo of the original track while still showcasing Ndegeocello’s ability to drop into a whisper and still maintain her strength. Though her relationship with Prince had rocky moments – he reportedly had less-than-kind words for her when she recorded an album with Warner Bros. – Ndegeocello’s respect for his work has always been clear, and never more explicitly than on this delicate rendition of one of Prince’s most moving works.
A little riskier is Ndegeocello’s arrangement of TLC’s era-defining “Waterfalls”, which she restructures slightly, changing the chorus’s last line from counsel to haunted observation: “It’s all moving so fast.” Here, the acoustic guitar is at its most open, closer to “Fire and Rain” than CrazySexyCool. It makes for a reflective sound.
If “Waterfalls” takes some risks, “Atomic Dog 2017” takes about as many risks as Ndegeocello can manage in one song; it is, she notes, a direct response to critics advising her to stay in what they see as her lane by sticking to funk. The funk here is freeform, ethereal and a little psychedelic, a little more Shuggie Otis than George Clinton, and all the better for it in terms of complexities and instrumental work.
The rest of the album is largely a testament to transformation. Ndegeocello adds a bright, swinging New Orleans vibe to a sometimes clarinet-heavy cover of Ralph Tresvant’s poppy 1990 hit “Sensitivity”, while Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” takes on a wistful quality. The Force MDs’ classic slow jam “Tender Love” becomes an earthy, acoustic love duet, complete with harmonica and serious strumming. The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” goes from synthpop to quiet storm. Ndegeocello goes slow and intimate on an understated cover of “Private Dancer” with all the requisite melancholy. Rounding out the collection is Sade’s “Smooth Operator”; Ndegeocello is careful to keep all the drama, but adds an extra dangerous undercurrent with the buzz of her electric bass. It’s a thrilling end to an album full of surprises.
Meshell Ndegeocello has never been an artist to stay in anyone else’s box, and on Ventriloquism, she shows that she can play any song and stay true to herself. Her musical sensibilities are about as close to flawless as it gets, her instincts finely honed and her style refreshingly indescribable. No matter how you feel about cover albums, Ndegeocello’s is worth hearing, not just because she’s chosen such classic songs, but because of who she is and what she continues, album after album, to bring to the soundscape at large: something different, something of her own.