If anyone was to ask me who the most underrated artist of the past twenty years, there would be absolutely no hesitation in my response Meshell Ndegeocello.
Since her debut in 1993, the singer, composer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist has been blowing me away. Ten studio albums that range in quality from merely good to mind-blowingly excellent, a complete unwillingness to fit in anyone’s box, and a well-deserved rep as a dynamic live performer have all contributed to my opinion. Meshell was the headliner at the very first concert I ever went to-way back in 1994 at New York’s Irving Plaza. I was 18 and completely unaware of what to expect. I was left slack-jawed by the performance. It was soulful and emotional and even though Meshell may not have been in the best place emotionally (she talked during the show about wanting to quit the business,) I was entranced. Another show in NYC almost a decade later was equally memorable from a musical perspective and offered up a less tortured, looser Meshell.
Perhaps her refusal to be put in a box is what has contributed to her lack of commercial notoriety. She’s worked with everyone from Wendy and Lisa to Joe Henry to Talib Kweli to Missy Elliott. Her music has shifted from go-go influenced dance music to dub reggae flavors to folk-pop-sometimes on the same album. The fact that she makes it all work puts her in quite rarified company. If you’re looking for artists who have remained as artistically challenging and consistent over the same time span-who is there? The Roots. Radiohead. Kanye (although he’s been around half the time.) Jack White?
Meshell’s latest album finds her paying tribute to an artist whose artistic vision and refusal to conform evoke some obvious comparisons-Nina Simone. Pour Une Ane Souveraine-A Dedication To Nina Simone finds Meshell alternating between vocalist and bandleader a bit more fluidly than she has on past albums. She offers a sultry version of “Feeling Good” (a song that, up until know, I believed should have been put to bed many moons ago) as well as a fiery (in a hushed kind of way) take on “See Line Woman.” The guest vocalists she invites to the album all deliver top-line performances. Cody ChesnuTT kills “To Be Young, Gifted & Black,” and the always-reliable Sinead O’ Connor shines on “Don’t Take All Night,” a song I was unfamiliar with until hearing this album. It’s a worthwhile pickup, but at this point me saying a Meshell album is a worthwhile pickup for a music fan is like me telling you that you need to bring PBR to a hipster party–it should go without saying.
While you’re checking out Pour Une Ame Souveraine, you might also want to give a listen to a remixed version of “The Consequences of Jealousy,” one of the highlight tracks on the Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio LP. Featuring Meshell on vocals, the new version appears on the recently-released EP Black Radio Recovered. This set offers versions of several Black Radio tracks with a bit more of a hip-hop sheen. You’ll also get a winning remix of “Afro Blue,” which puts Erykah Badu firmly in the headwrap/incense zone of her first album, as well as a 9-minute ?uestlove-assisted re-rub of “Twice.” If nothing else, Solange Knowles has fantastic taste in collaborators-she shines here. Plus, there’s a Dilla Tribute. Need I say more?
Not only one of the most compelling artists of her generation, but blessed with the ability to add even more flavor to the albums of others: let it be known once and for all, Meshell is the shit. If you are not familiar with her work, you are doing yourself a great disservice.
Pour Une Ame Souvereine: A-
Black Radio Recovered: B+