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Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello is an unassuming colossus whose body of work extends far beyond the early hits and virtuosic bass playing with which she is most associated. "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," her taunting and funky breakout single, immediately set her apart as an instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter, and producer. Less than a year after the song entered Billboard's R&B/hip-hop, dance, and pop charts, Ndegeocello was nominated for four Grammys, including Best R&B Album for Plantation Lullabies (1993) and Best Pop Vocal Collaboration for "Wild Night," her Top Ten hit duet with John Mellencamp. Ndegeocello has remained impossible to typecast ever since. A preternatural synthesist, she has mixed and moved across jazz, blues, soul, funk, and reggae, as well as folk and rock. As a leader, she has alternated just as freely between small combos and large ensembles, and as a session musician and featured artist has written and recorded across an even wider spectrum of styles. In addition to her lithe and melodic primary instrument and vocals encompassing authoritative raps, pensive spoken word, and ethereal choruses, Ndegeocello has played keyboards, drums, and guitar, among other instruments. Foremost among the many highlights in her catalog are three additional Grammy-nominated albums: the oft-pointed and probing Peace Beyond Passion (1996), the imaginative covers set Ventriloquism (2018), and the wide-scoped Omnichord Real Book (2023), the latter of which marked her Blue Note debut and took the first Grammy for Best Alternative Jazz Album. The following year, Ndegeocello curated the benefit offering Red Hot & Ra: The Magic City: a tribute to Sun Ra featuring a a star-studded cast. Michelle Lynn Johnson was born in Berlin and raised primarily in Washington, D.C. Her father Jacques Johnson was a U.S. Army sergeant major, educator, and tenor saxophonist who played extensively in army bands and recorded several albums. Interested in a wide range of music, the younger Johnson began to play bass in and around D.C. in her teens, performing with go-go bands such as Rare Essence, Prophecy, and Little Benny & the Masters. She graduated from Duke Ellington School of the Arts and studied music at Howard University before moving to Harlem. In New York, she played in clubs, auditioned for Living Colour (the role went to Doug Wimbish), and contributed to 1991-1993 recordings by the Lenny White-produced group Voyceboxing, saxophonist Steve Coleman, and singers Toshi Kubota and Caron Wheeler. During this period, Johnson was on the brink of quitting music and had enrolled in barber college when her otherwise ignored solo demo attracted a deal with Maverick, the Warner-distributed label launched by Madonna. Having been credited for her session work under Me'Shelle, Meshell Johnson, and Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Johnson settled on the latter with the Swahili word for "free like a bird" as her last name. Her solo album debut was made in October 1993 with Plantation Lullabies. From the start, Ndegeocello showed a natural disinclination for conforming to industry genre designations, freely blending funk, jazz, and hip-hop with mature contemporary R&B. Ndegeocello produced the entirety of the album with David Gamson (Scritti Politti), André Betts (Madonna's "Justify My Love"), and Bob Power (A Tribe Called Quest) alternating as co-producers. Veteran musicians such as Wah Wah Watson, Geri Allen, and Bill Summers were involved as much as younger contributors like Joshua Redman and DJ Premier. In addition to her fluid and melodic basslines, Plantation Lullabies displayed Ndegeocello's aptitude for both singing and rapping and ease with switching from confrontational to seductive modes. It also showed Ndegeocello as a lyrical firebrand confronting racism and related issues such as beauty standards and the faults of capitalism. "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," its most attitudinal and energetic single, reached number 23 on Billboard's R&B/hip-hop chart, number 20 on the dance chart, and cracked the Hot 100, peaking at number 73. While that song was taking hold, John Mellencamp released his cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night" with Ndegeocello on bass and co-lead vocals. The duet went to number three on the Hot 100. Ndegeocello was subsequently nominated for four Grammys: Best R&B Album, Best Rhythm & Blues Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (both for "If That's Your Boyfriend"), and Best Pop Vocal Collaboration (for "Wild Night"). Almost three years passed between the release of Ndegeocello's first and second albums. During the interim, she was heard on albums by Madonna, Marcus Miller, and Guru, among others, and appeared on soundtracks and compilations ranging from Higher Learning and Panther to the Red Hot Organization project Stolen Moments, joined on the latter by Herbie Hancock. Peace Beyond Passion, Ndegeocello's second full-length, was produced by main Plantation Lullabies collaborator David Gamson and made with many of the same associates. Leaner and more atmospheric qualities distinguished it from the debut. The set, which added Gene Lake (drums), Wendy Melvoin (guitar), Billy Preston (organ), and Bennie Maupin (bass clarinet) to the Ndegeocello collaborative mix, saw release in June 1996 and peaked on the Billboard 200 at number 63, considerably higher than the debut. Along with originals as provocative as their titles indicated -- "Deuteronomy: N*ggerman," "Leviticus: F*ggot," and so forth -- Peace Beyond Passion contained a cover of Bill Withers' "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)" that topped Billboard's dance chart. At the 39th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony, Peace Beyond Passion was up for Best R&B Album, and Chaka Khan's November 1996 single "Never Miss the Water," featuring Ndegeocello on bass and secondary vocals, was nominated in the category of Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. Busying herself with more soundtrack and session activity, Ndegeocello again took three years to deliver another album. In addition to appearances on Batman & Robin and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she recorded with an assortment of artists including the Rolling Stones, Queen Pen, and Scritti Politti. Bitter, on which she was billed as Meshell Ndegéocello, arrived in August 1999. Downcast, reflective, and organic with sympathetic production from Craig Street, Ndegeocello's third album was bolstered by instrumental support from the likes of Wendy & Lisa, along with guitarists Ronny Drayton, David Torn, and Doyle Bramhall II. It was also notable for setting off a long-term association with bassist and guitarist Chris Bruce. While only "Grace" was promoted as a single, "Beautiful" and "Fool of Me," and a version of Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love" draped with strings, became some of Ndegeocello's best-known ballads. Bitter's release was trailed by more soundtracks and collaborations. Albums from Indigo Girls, John Mellencamp, Ledisi, Joe Henry, and Lamb arrived from late 1999 through the first half of 2002 with Ndegeocello the common factor. After a few delays, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape, recorded in mid-2001 with Ndegeocello and Allen Cato as co-producers, landed in June 2002. It marked the simplification of the musician's name with the dropping of the accent from Ndegéocello. Threaded with sampled spoken passages from the likes of Dick Gregory, Gil Scott-Heron, and Angela Davis, Cookie was also packed with similarly sharp, often rapped critiques from Ndegeocello herself, leading with "Dead N*gga Blvd.," a song targeting hollow gestures and the perpetuation of racist stereotypes, among other issues, with a call to "redefine what it means to be free." Caron Wheeler and Lalah Hathaway supplied some of the LP's additional vocals, while the single "Pocketbook" was remixed by Rockwilder and Missy Elliott with appearances from Redman and Tweet. Cookie became Ndegeocello's second album to crack the upper half of the Billboard 200, and it was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary R&B Album. The following October, Ndegeocello closed out the Maverick era with the sensual Comfort Woman. Its liquid funk and reggae grooves, anchored by Ndegeocello's bass and Chris Dave's drums, were co-produced by Cato. Setting up temporarily with the Shanachie label, Ndegeocello moved forward with The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel. A significant departure, the exploratory and entirely self-composed set was rooted in jazz and primarily instrumental. Ndegeocello opted to not sing, leaving its few vocal turns to Cassandra Wilson, Lalah Hathaway, and Sabina Sciubba, and shared bass duties with Matthew Garrison. Also among the shifting personnel was drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Oliver Lake, and clarinetist Don Byron. Dance of the Infidel was the leader's first album to register on Billboard's jazz chart, reaching number nine upon release in June 2005, and was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Instead of remaining in that stylistic mode, Ndegeocello continued to keep listeners on their toes with album seven, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams. Had it not been preceded by a rumbling cover of Radiohead's "The National Anthem" and a Grammy-nominated radical reworking of Earth, Wind & Fire's "Fantasy," it would have likely surprised her entire fanbase. The fruit of another one-album label affiliation -- this time with Decca -- The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams ranged in approach from the confrontational and driving rock of "The Sloganeer" to the lovelorn folk of "Shirk," featuring Pat Metheny and Hervé Samb on guitar, and a secondary vocal from Oumou Sangare. Ndegeocello capped the 2000s in October 2009 with Devil's Halo, recorded for Downtown Music subsidiary Mercer Street. One of her tightest and most rock-oriented albums, it was made with a core backing band of Deantoni Parks (drums), Chris Bruce (guitar), and Keefus Ciancia (keyboards), and was filled with candid songwriting, as well as a longing cover of Ready for the World's "Love You Down." She then settled in with the Paris-based Naïve label for four projects. The same trio of players backed her for the first of these, Weather, a collaboration with Joe Henry that arrived in November 2011. Along with the fraught "Dirty World" and strutting "Petite Mort" were spare readings of Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel" and Soul Children's deep Stax gem "Don't Take My Kindness for Weakness." Next, in October 2012, Ndegeocello detoured again with Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, interpretations of songs Nina Simone either wrote or covered herself, from Simone and Weldon Irvine's "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" to Cohen's "Suzanne." Parks, Bruce, and keyboardist Jebin Bruni backed Ndegeocello, who shared lead vocals with the likes of Sinéad O'Connor, Toshi Reagon, Lizz Wright, and Valerie June. Comet, Come to Me followed in June 2014. Drummer Earl Harvin joined Bruni and Bruce as primary support, and Doyle Bramhall II contributed vocals and guitar to two songs. Stylistically, Comet, Come to Me picked up where Weather left off, highlighted by probing soul-blues-rock hybrids like "Conviction," the rootsier "Good Day Bad," and a creative update of Whodini's "Friends." It was the eighth album Ndegeocello placed on the Billboard 200, and her tenth on the R&B/hip-hop chart. The Naïve phase concluded in March 2018 with Ventriloquism. An imaginative all-covers set with Abe Rounds on drums, it refreshed songs dating mostly from the '80s, including Prince and Wendy & Lisa's "Sometimes It Snows in April," Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's "I Wonder If I Take You Home," and the System's "Don't Disturb the Groove." Ventriloquism was up for a Grammy in the category of Best Urban Contemporary Album. During the years Ndegeocello was on Naïve, she contributed to a wide assortment of additional sessions led by the likes of Victor Wooton, Robert Glasper, Chris Connelly, Ibeyi, and Marc Ribot. Moreover, she produced Jason Moran's All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller and Marcus Strickland's Nihil Novi, a pair of Blue Note dates. That activity continued in 2020, throughout which Ndegeocello factored in material from Joan as Police Woman, Pat Metheny, and Lakecia Benjamin, and also Glasper. "Better Than I Imagined," pairing Ndegeocello with H.E.R. for Glasper's Black Radio III, was the winner of that year's Grammy for Best R&B Song. Additional Ndegeocello collaborations from 2021 to 2023 occurred on projects from Antonio Sanchez, Brandee Younger, and Sam Gendel. During this period, Ndegeocello covered "Fantastic Voyage" for the David Bowie tribute album Modern Love. Tightening her association with Blue Note, Ndegeocello signed with the historic label for her 13th album. The Omnichord Real Book, a double-length set of genre-spanning work on which she was joined by the likes of Moran, Younger, and Jeff Parker, with Josh Johnson as producer, was released in June 2023. It was her first set of primarily original material in almost a decade. It won the inaugural Grammy for Best Alternative Jazz Album eight months after arrival. The Red Hot Organization recruited Ndegeocello to curate the 2024 benefit project Red Hot & Ra: The Magic City. The nine-song benefit set --featuring all originals by the curator and her collaborators inspired by Sun Ra -- was released in April. Its cast included jazz luminaries such as nonagenarian saxophonist Marshall Allen (current leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra), drummer Deantoni Parks, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, and saxophonist/vocalist Darius Jones to list only a few.
© Andy Kellman /TiVo


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