My introduction to Meshell Ndegeocello came at 35,000 feet on a long haul flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Listening to one of the inflight radio programs, I came across her cover of “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)?” from her evocative 1996 album Peace Beyond Passion. No sooner had the flight landed and I found myself racing over to the famed Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard to grab it and her 1993 debut Plantation Lullabies.
In a career that has seen her blend soul, R&B, funk, hip-hop, jazz, reggae and rock into her own special brand of sonic alchemy, Ndegeocello has never steered away from covering great songs and putting her own stamp on it. Dating back to her debut album, she has covered everyone from Bill Withers to Van Morrison to Funkadelic. So it wasn’t a surprise when she announced earlier this year that her twelfth album release Ventriloquism would be made up completely of covers, specifically the ‘80s and ‘90s R&B gems of her youth.
The challenge with recording a cover is that for the well-versed listener, the original will always play along in their head in time with the new interpretation. As a result, each variation is amplified and each carbon copy vilified. The artist must either walk the tightrope of giving just enough familiarity to engage, but not too much to make the cover redundant. Or they can boldly leap toward taking the song into a new space that breathes new life into it.
The latter is what Ndegeocello does so well on this album. With many of the originals steeped in quantized mechanical drumbeats and chintzy synths of the era, she reshapes them and makes them sound more organic and tactile by fleshing them out with a full band feel.
Album opener, the gloriously unexpected cover of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s "I Wonder If I Take You Home" is transformed into a trippy tale of seduction with Ndegeocello cooing the lyrics with effortless come-ons.
When she strips the songs back to their core intent, honing in on the message within the lyrics, she manages to elevate them into a new place. The guitar-tinged, slow burn cover of Al B. Sure!’s “Night And Day” is given an extra sense of longing and desire.
Covers of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” have been plentiful since his untimely passing and there is a sense of cover-fatigue in hearing yet another version doled out. Whilst there is no denying Ndegeocello’s affinity with the Purple One’s music, this cover doesn’t really push the song forward, and in comparison to the rest of the album feels more like a heartfelt tribute than a new interpretation. Not a bad thing in and of itself in this case, as her rendition taps into the sorrow of the song, but it left me wanting a little more.
Contrast that to the wonderfully inventive take on TLC’s “Waterfalls.” Here Ndegeocello gives the song a bluesy, folksy feel that adds to the lament of the lyrics and presents it with a new identity.
Elsewhere on the album covers of George Clinton’s dancefloor stomper “Atomic Dog” and Force MDs’ “Tender Love” both get a country blues makeover that makes you feel like you’re hearing these funk and R&B standards for the first time. The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” and Ralph Tresvant’s smooth-as-silk “Sensitivity” both are presented as jazz folk and rockabilly twang respectively, risks that pay off musically and encourage you to reinterpret the content of the songs. And extra points to Ndegeocello for not changing gender pronouns when retelling these songs.
As the album continues, it is evident that its creator is a lover of music with deep cuts presented as well as more standard hits. In addition to the aforementioned Prince track, she also reworks Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” into a haunting torch song filled with evocative guitar atmospherics.
One of the joys of an album like this, is when an artist can take a song that you have disliked for decades and present it in a way that makes you appreciate the songwriting (if obviously not the original execution). For me, this happened when listening to “Private Dancer,” one of Tina Turner’s classic ‘80s comeback hits. I’ve never been a fan. In fact I pretty much hate it. So as I was prepared to skip it, Ndegeocello’s take made me pause, as she takes the power in the narrative and fashions it as a mournful song of regret.
One of the album’s blissfully shining lights the album-closing cover of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” is given a jazz-meets-dub fusion with skipping time signature that offers a futuristic redux.
Recorded during a time of grieving for Ndegeocello following the passing of her father, Ventriloquism finds her giving voice to her pain through the works of others, and in doing so, making the journey all her own. It’s an album well worth diving into whether you are a fan of the original recordings or not.
Notable Tracks: “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” | “Smooth Operator” | “Tender Love” | “Waterfalls”