Happy 20th Anniversary to Meshell Ndegeocello’s sophomore album Peace Beyond Passion, originally released June 25, 1996.
Peace Beyond Passion is Meshell Ndegeocello's follow up to her 1993 debut LP Plantation Lullabies, which was a funky and intelligent blend of R&B, hip-hop, and jazz that helped usher in a new era of neo soul. Ndegeocello's sophomore album does not necessarily pick up where the first album left off. Instead, it went WARP speed into another dimension. She used the three years between albums wisely, collaborating with artists such as John Mellencamp and Herbie Hancock, honing her craft in the process.
It wouldn't be fair to call Peace Beyond Passion a career defining album. What should be said is that this is the point where Ndegeocello grew and matured as an artist. Peace Beyond Passion effortlessly touches on third rail topics such as Christianity, racism, sexuality and homophobia, aided by Ndegeocello's smooth, fluid vocals and incisive lyrics.
After the brief opening instrumental “The Womb,” the first words we hear are "Jesus cured the blind man so that he could see the evils of the world.” Those powerful words are the beginning of “The Way,” which sets us off on a journey seeking spirituality while questioning Christianity and those who have perverted and misinterpreted its tenets. The titles of the next three songs may be considered blasphemous by many due to the juxtaposition of books in the bible alongside racial and homophobic slurs. It simply would not fly in 2016. While the titles may be heavy-handed, the songs are substantive, direct, brilliant and NSFW.
“Deuteronomy: N*****man” manages to weave the tale of Adam & Eve, slavery and the historical and systemic emasculation of black men into a four-minute jazz/hip-hop/spoken word wonder. “Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart” is a mellow meditation on one’s discontent with life here on earth and what it truly means to be free.
It’s a very interesting segue into “Leviticus: F****t,” which bluntly calls out so-called Christians for their hypocrisy and cultural myopia. Twenty years ago, not many artists were directly taking aim at the pervasive homophobia in religion like Ndegeocello does. In the song, she assumes the voice of a homophobe admonishing someone that he is “a prisoner of his own perverted ways.” When I first heard the song, it was admittedly jarring. I’m pretty certain my friends in the LGBTQ community have come across people like the one Ndegeocello portrays in the song. While the lyrics are harsh, the strength of this song lies in its brutal honesty.
“Mary Magdelene” and “God Shiva” round out what I like to call “The Religious Suite,” the latter song co-written by Wendy Melvoin (formerly of The Revolution). She also plays guitar on the track as well. Billy Preston, Joshua Redman, and Wah Wah Watson are among the many talented musicians who contributed to this amazing and underrated album.
The biggest hit from the album is a stellar cover of Bill Withers' “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)” (1972) which guides us into a more somber and thought provoking tail end of the album. “Stay,” “Bittersweet,” and “A Tear and A Smile” form a subdued trio of songs that celebrate the beauty and spirituality of love, whether it be the love of another or the love you find within yourself.
The journey from track 1 to track 11 traces our heroine’s journey from questioning the very meaning of spirituality to finding it and eventually embracing it. Track 12, “Make Me Wanna Holler,” is a sobering summation of an uneasy life with no simple solutions or a way out. I’ve always found it interesting that Ndegeocello gave a songwriting credit to Marvin Gaye even though the only similarity is the song title. On Gaye’s What’s Going On, the song is titled “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The sentiments of both songs are similar, but Ndegeocello’s version pulls no punches and has no desire to soften the blow. There is also a striking similarity between the two artists, as Gaye and Ndegeocello are absolutely fearless when it comes to tackling religion and sexuality through song. They are without peers in this regard.
Peace Beyond Passion delivers the goods. It is a Swiss Army knife of sex, religion, race, and class that leaves you stunned and mesmerized. The number of times I said to myself “oh shit, did she just say that?” when I first bought the CD were numerous. It’s one of those albums that unravel as a revelation each time you play it. Peace Beyond Passion is a lyrically and musically wise concept album that remains relevant, insightful, and inspiring twenty years later.