Despite the fact that the general music-listening populace probably only remembers her from her guest appearance on John Mellencamp’s 1994 hit cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”, Me’shell Ndegeocello has been kicking ass on the musical tip consistently for nearly two decades now. I latched on early. I remember reading an article on her in the now-defunct (I think) fanzine Black Beat before her debut effort, Plantation Lullabies, even came out. By the time the album was released, I was working in a record store and picked it up with a quickness. Fusing hip-hop, soul and jazz with a heavy dose of racial and sexual politics, Me’shell came on like the love child of Gil-Scott Heron and Prince. As her career has progressed, Me’shell’s proven to be even more in debt to the latter influence than initially realized. Each of her albums sounds different than the one before, while still retaining that unique “Me’shell-ness”. She’s explored multiple genres, served as singer, poet, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, emcee, producer…not only can she do it all, but she does it all WELL. To top it all off, she’s a kick-ass live performer, bringing humor, intensity and passion every time she steps out on stage.
Weather is Me’shell’s ninth studio album, and it finds her spirit as adventurous as ever. Even though she’s been a self-sufficient artist almost from Day 1 (and had been taking even more control over the past decade or so), she cedes the production reins to Joe Henry. Me’shell and Joe have a history that dates back at least to 1999’s “Wasting Time”, the final track on her stunning third album, Bitter. This marks their first album-length collaboration. Me’shell leans much more heavily on her interpretive skills on this album than on past efforts, and (I have to check the credits on her other albums to verify) it also marks the first time she’s largely absent from the bass-playing duties (not to mention songwriting duties-she only gets writing credit for about half the songs on Weather.)
Regardless of those changes-Weather is still immediately recognizable as a Me’shell album, strongly recalling Bitter in feel as well as lyrical content. The older album is more downcast and breakup-minded, but there’s not a lot of levity to be found on Weather, either. Songs like the bare-bones album closer “Don’t Take My Kindness for Weakness” are striking in their simplicity, with a bit of a dark vibe. Songs like “Chance” and “Dead End” up the tempo slightly, but are still closer to the pop/rock sound of Bitter than much of Me’shell’s more well-known work. In a nutshell, if you’re looking for some funky bass jams on Weather, prepare yourself to look elsewhere (although, be forewarned that you’ll be missing out on a ton of great music if you go that route.) Only the insistent “Rapid Fire” comes close to capturing that sound.
Of course, one thing Me’shell does almost better than anyone else is seduce. “Petit Mort” is one of the most erotic things you will hear this year. Hearing her whisper “who’s your daddy?” will probably cause lots of loin-tingling. Continuing in the vein she established on her last album (2009’s Devil’s Halo) with her tongue-wagging cover of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down”, this album finds Me’shell taking on Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel”. She succeeds in turning the legendary tunesmith’s song into an almost unbearably sensual workout. I’m sure Mr. Cohen himself would bow to this remake.
I’m almost of the mind that it would take an act of God to prevent Me’shell Ndegeocello from releasing a good album (and I really, really would like her to not put my theory to the test!) Weather continues the amazing run of quality music by one of the industry’s most challenging artists, now headed into it’s third decade.
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