Me'Shell NdegeOcello


(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

Plantation Lullabies (1993) , 6.5/10
Peace Beyond Passion (1996), 5/10
Bitter (1999), 6/10
Comfort Woman (2003) , 6.5/10
Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2002), 5.5/10
Dance of the Infidel (2005), 6/10
The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (2007) , 7/10
Devil's Halo (2009), 5/10
Weather (2011), 5/10
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Jazz-hop became the sensation of 1993 with albums such as Plantation Lullabies (1993) by Washington's Me'Shell NdegeOcello (Mary Johnson, who also used the name Meshell Suhaila Bashir Shakur). The album opens with an old-fashioned lounge-oriented funk-soul shuffle, I'm Diggin You, but that's misleading. Her producers help her craft eventful pieces that can be both smooth and dense such as Shoot'n Up And Gett'n High, and not easy to pin to a specific genre. The crossover standouts are If That's Your Boyfriend, with its breezy rapping, catchy refrain and jazzy instrumental sounds, and Step Into The Projects whose lively beats are decorated by Joshua Redman on (romantic) tenor saxophone and Geri Allen on (soulful) piano. A problem is already visible, and it will only get worse: at times she virtually stops the music to satisfy her spoken-word vanity. The other problem is that too many songs languish in lame rhythms. Picture Show is the rare exception that wakes you up.

Peace Beyond Passion (1996), that includes Stay, was more accessible and fashionable while indulging in intimate, subdued spoken-word poetry.

The depressed confessional concept Bitter (1999), had its alter-ego in the sensual concept Comfort Woman (2003), that explored a lifestyle of sex and drugs. These two albums coined a style that was like the wedding of soul music's corporeal balladry and Joni Mitchell's austere meditations. The arrangements are therefore spartan and subdued, no instrumental sound allowed to steal the show. Your initiation starts with the disorienting and alienated Love Song #1, sung in an erotic trance against a semi-industrial ska-ish beat, and is completed by the time you finish the otherworldly Thankful. Along the way you are accompanied by a soothing spoken tone that exudes a disturbing kind of inertia, best in Come Smoke My Herb. It is not surprising that the agonizing martial litany of Love Song #3 sounds like a remake of Prince's Purple Rain. That's not to say that the album is all crawling at snail speed: the hypnotic poly-funky Body, the bass-heavy reggae ditty Fellowship and the swinging, Brazilian-tinged Good Intentions lift the mind out of the foggy atmosphere. The painstaking care with which each confession is crafted fails only in one case, when the whispered feathery lullabye Liliquoi Moon suddenly turns into an incendiary jazz-rock jam: that couldn't sound more out of context.

Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2002) was a transitional work, still grounded in the pop and hip-hop traditions while heavily contaminated by a jazz mindset.

She ambitiously ventured into jazz territory with Dance of the Infidel (2005), on which she played bandleader and "composer" for the improvised music of Jack DeJohnette, Oliver Lake, Don Byron, Kenny Garrett and Cassandra Wilson (one of the many vocalists who relieved NdegeOcello of vocal duties), achieving a surreal zenith in the banjo and harmonica instrumental Luqman.

Reassured by that experiment, she repeated it on The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams (Bismillah, 2007), with another cast of jazz performers, but this time mostly fronted by her own voice. There are departures of all sorts from her past standards: the ominous Islamic prophecy of Haditha that opens the album or the ecstatic Middle-eastern invocation of Shirk, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the pounding African-tinged Article 3 or the booming The Sloganeer - Paradise, which, by her standard, are hard rock. On one hand she leaves the realm of pop music with the abstract, rhythm-less, psychedelic second half of Michelle Johnson, and on the other Relief - A Stripper Classic is the Prince-like lurid blue du jour. The biggest departure, or, better, evolution, has to do with the spiritual countercurrent of the album, clearly the antithesis of what Comfort Woman stood for. It is easier to recognize her in her trademark trances, such as the sensual smooth Lovely Lovely and the ethereal semi-paralysis of Evolution; although the new artist is perhaps too intellectual for such fragile songs (Elliptical, with trumpeter Graham Haynes and guitarist Brandon Ross). The best jazz comes out of the existential dreamy Caribbean-tinged soliloquy of Virgo, leading a sextet that includes saxophonist Oliver Lake, flutist James Newton, keyboardist Scott Mann and trombonist George McMullen, and in the bonus track, the lusty piano-driven meditation A Different Girl. As usual, small tasteful doses of electronic sounds introduce and punctuate. This could be her best album.

She returned to humbler ground with Devil's Halo (2009), perhaps her most sincere and personal work but also a lot more conventional. The single Slaughter sounded like alternative rock of a decade earlier.

Weather (2011) continued her slow slide into enervated mellow ambient soul-jazz-funk fusion balladry with the same personnel of the previous album but even less of a funk urge (except for the standout, Dirty World). The course is set by the acid-folkish Weather and the piano ballad Oyster.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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