This past weekend I went to a funeral. While funerals are seldom ever fun, it can open the mind to doubt and anger. Such occasions often push believers in God to doubt or to question the timing of a loved one’s passing. It can also lead to questions and general doubt about everything if left unchecked.
In the case of Me’shell Ndegeocello, it would be one of the driving forces behind her music, although not nearly as drastic, but tragic enough to produce compelling art. Artist as diverse as George Michael to Tori Amos have written songs that express a deep dissatisfaction with fame, God or the seemingly cruel random nature of life in general.
One of the more thought provoking, yet entertaining manifestations of doubt expressed musically came from Me’shell Ndegeocello. Her name is often butchered, but there’s no mistaking her style from the hordes of cookie cutter R&B female artist who litter the airwaves. Fittingly, she was the inaugural artist on Madonna’s new Maverick label with her debut award winning Plantation Lullabies.
The muscular bass driven rhythms that characterized Ndegeocello’s music was unusual for female artists at the time. Combined with a dry sarcastic wit and Ndegeocello’s sensual and sometimes deep voice, gave her an androgynous musical presence that was somewhat raw and street next to the image projected by Eurythmics era Anne Lennox.
Ndegeocello is one of the world’s foremost bass players and her passion for that instrument has led her to create some of the funkiest bass-lines this side of Parliament (just listen to ‘Dred Loc’). Her skills are not limited to just playing the bass as Plantation Lullabies will attest. As accomplished singer/songwriter (with what some would say a chip on her shoulder), she would create controversy later in her career with strong messages about hypocrisy and sexuality.
As a black bisexual, her persona in rock/pop is a rare one. It infused her music with added depth and complexity. Plantation Lullabies sparked what would later be known as neo-soul, but Ndegeocello’s lyrics and arrangements could span anything from jazz to alternative rock.
Plantation Lullabies showcased all of these stylistic influences, but was held together by a team of producers including Andre Betts and Ndegecello’s sophisticated approach to the subject matter.
Plantation Lullabies was a critical success, offering the casual listener funky and danceable songs while rewarding the more careful listener with complex treatments to topical subject matter.
The albums biggest hit ‘If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)’ may have been one of the albums most unconventional songs. The funk/jazz hybred became a crossover hit that was popular on VH-1, MTV and urban radio.
Not since Prince’s ‘Sign o the Times’ had R&B really had anything to say substantial. That’s one of the things that makes Plantation Lullabies and nearly all of Ndegeocello’s work so compelling. Thorny issues accompanied by a compelling beat was the stuff of rap music in the early ’90s. Plantation Lullabies was a musical breath of fresh air. Doubt and disenchantment never sounded so good.