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Meshell Ndegeocello Revels in the Soundtrack of Black Life in the 1980s



By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Tuesday, March 20, 2018.


Black R&B in the 1980s is mostly remembered for the folk who got out; in Janet Jackson, the late Prince, Lionel Richie, the late Michael Jackson, and to a lesser extent Whitney Houston -- who was introduced via collaborations with R&B stalwarts Teddy Pendergrass and Jermaine Jackson -- were figures who crossed-over the mainstream, setting the path for the success, a generation later, for Beyonce, Usher Raymond, Alicia Keys, and so many others that we just refer to as pop stars.


Yet the very foundations of R&B in the 1980s were lesser known R&B acts like The S.O.S. Band, Cheryl Lynn,  Paul Laurence. Kashif, Midnight Star, Atlantic Starr, The Deele, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Freddie Jackson, Full Force, Roger Troutman and Zapp, New Edition, and Luther Vandross -- and the producers that served as their connective tissue like the The Calloway Brothers, Mtume, Marcus Miller, Reggie Lucas, James Carmichael, the aforementioned Laurence and Kashif, and the young collaborative teams of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (Flyte Tyme), and Antonio “LA” Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds (LaFace),    


Save the role that Flyte Time and LaFace played in the crossover successes of Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton, TLC  and Whitney Houston (in the 1990s), these are artist that have been largely given short shrift in remembrances of the period; Reggie Lucas’s role as the primary producer on Madonna’s debut in 1983 is but one example of what has been overlooked.


A decade later it was on Madonna’s boutique label Maverick, that Meshell Ndegeocello recorded her first album Plantation Lullabies.  Twenty-five years after her stellar debut, Ndegeocello offers Ventriloquism, her twelfth studio recording and fourth for the French indie label Naïve.  Ventriloquism, is a fitting tribute to the R&B of the 1980s and early 1990s that Ndegeocello came of age listening to.  As Ndegeocello explained recently to Billboard, “All of this was a soundtrack to my youth. And the D.C. Go-Go bands always would take the hits of the time and filter them through their collective lens.” Like those Go-Go bands, Ndegeocello takes license,   offering thoughtful and at times original interpretations of R&B staples from The Force MDs, Al B. Sure, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Janet Jackson, George Clinton and Prince.


Ndegeocello plays it mostly straight on the opening track, “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (1985), Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s Full Force produced technofunk classic. Lisa Velez's career was a legitimate precursor to that of Jennifer Lopez -- a Nuyorican raised Boricua -- and answers questions about the so-called cultural appropriation of Bruno Mars before such questions can be asked.  That Ndegeocello referred to Mars’ music as karaoke, has less to do with encroachments, and more to do with the derivative nature of his music, particularly in comparison to the actual contributions that Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam made to the culture thirty-years ago.


“I Wonder If I Take You Home” is one of the few tracks in which Ndegeocello lets loose; even on “Atomic Dog 2017” she chooses restraint, though turning the tables on Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” (easily the best single of the New Edition solo efforts), which she transforms into a bluesey shuffle, accompanied with cowbells. The Force MDs “Tender Love” gets a little bit of that gutbucket swing, though pitched as a waltz. “Those songs by Ralph Tresvant and The Force MDs” Ndegeocello shared with Billboard, “were the Black wedding songs...They all spoke of this amazing tenderness.”


Like her classic Bitter (1999), and so many of her recent efforts like Weather (2011), Comet, Come to Me (2014), and Devil’s Halo (2009), Ventriloquism finds the bassist impressionistic and working the contours of musical interiority. Indeed the seeds of this project might be found in Ndegeocello's cover of Whodini’s “Friends” (Comet, Come to Me) and, in particular, her oh so sweet interpretation of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down” from Devil’s Halo.


There are resonances of that Ready for the World cover on many of Ventriloquism’s covers including TLC’s “Waterfalls” (perhaps the most Meshell-like track in the bunch), The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day,” and Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” (the most poppish track in the archive that Ndegeocello chose).


Much attention will be given to Ndegeocello’s lovesong to “Christopher Tracy”; “Sometimes It Snows in April” is a fitting dirge for Prince Rogers Nelson, especially for an artist whose career might have been even more illegible than it is, without his presence. The biggest surprises though are Ndegeocello’s radical re-imagining of “Smooth Operator,” -- which seemingly retrofits Sade for the #MeToo era -- and a rather sublime rendering of Janet Jackson “Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)” from her breakout Control (1986).


According to Ndegeocello, “it was nice to just sit with tunes that you love and you know in and out in an emotional way. It was cathartic for me to try to give them another life, these songs.” New life she gives,  and a much needed catharsis for those who can discern the difference between a really good cover act, and musical brilliance.


Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and Professor of African + African-American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he chairs the Department of African + African-American Studies.


Meshell Ndegeocello Revels in the Soundtrack of Black Life in the 1980s

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