Meshell Ndegeocello Reimagines 80s and 90s Classics on ‘Ventriloquism’
What does a highly accomplished musician and performer do after exploring the full spectrum of musical genres, including helping give birth to a genre that has now come to be known as neo-soul? If you’re critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello, you dig back to the musical roots of your youth to recognize and honor what has helped shape you into the formidable artist you have become.
With her new album, “Ventriloquism,” the singer-songwriter does exactly that, creating a groovy, lovingly orchestrated tribute to the soundtrack of her coming-of-age era that was the 80s, along with a couple gems from the 90s. But rather than just redoing a collection of covers, Ndegeocello delves deep into the heart of each song to unearth its soulful core. Throughout, she evinces a sense of gratitude for being able to take a nostalgic retrospective journey through the time period via its most memorable music.
Selecting a generous sample of well-known R&B, pop, and funk songs from the 80s and 90s, Ndegeocello and her band take their sweet time, slowly making their way through the songs with laid-back drum beats, sparse guitar, bass, and piano. This easy approach leaves ample space for the listener to feel the utmost depths of the dreamy melancholia that seems to permeate each track, most notably in Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.”
The album leads off with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “Take Me Home,” followed by Al B. Sure’s “Nite and Day” where Ndegeocello’s sultry and breathy vocal delivery rides lazily over and easy composition of in-the-pocket drum beats and clean, plaintive piano and sparse, clean guitar chords.
Ndegeocello’s rendition of Prince’s “Sometimes in April” seems stripped to its very essence, laying bare a mournful intonation with lyrics half-spoken in Ndegeocello’s husky voice.
Next comes a folk-bluesy interpretation of TLC’s “Waterfalls” that actually deepens and beautifies the inherent tragedy already infused within the song’s lyrics.
George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” gets a country western makeover, complete with twangy guitar and famously groove-laden bass line, that surprisingly fits the song’s legendary, existential lyrics.
In Ralph Tresvant’s song, “Sensitivity,” hearing Ndegeocello sing with utmost assuredness “You need a man with sensitivity / a man like me,” seems fitting and most relevant to the current zeitgeist of challenged gender norms.
Both Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies” and Force MD’s “Tender Love” seem to evoke a foreboding element created via dark, moody cello, haunting piano and the ghostly echo of guitar.
There is a decidedly other-world quality to Ndegeocello’s version of The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” elevated to heavenly heights with her smooth, gorgeously layered vocals.
The album ends with the Sade song “Smooth Operator,” featuring a wickedly dancing groove leading the way for Ndegeocello’s own velvety vocal performance that effortlessly rivals the original.
The title of her album, “Ventriloquism,” is perhaps ironic, as Ndegeocello has clearly made these songs her own while remaining respectful of the original artist’s creation. The powerful effect and influence these songs have had upon her is evident in the way in which she lingers upon the words, savoring them as if they had been an aged wine, saved from way back then, to be fully enjoyed in the here and now, all the while, knowing that with a lifetime of experiences under her belt, she can truly relate to and live inside the joy and pain that inspired their initial creation.
“Ventriloquism” is available March 16 on Apple Music.