Me’Shell Ndegéocello doesn’t pussyfoot around. She’s as bold as love, blending tough, personal revelations into slow-simmering funk, pop-flavored jazz, and silky R&B. Her topics tackle life’s biggest dilemmas, converging into a medley of spiritual yearning, harsh social commentary, and seductive, thorny love songs.
Ndegéocello clearly states her identity in her lyrics: African-American, bisexual, single mother, former drug abuser, product of a violent home, religious seeker. Her musical arrangements trace her creative training as a jazz protégé who moved from prestigious musical schools (Howard University and Duke Ellington School of the Arts) to downtown New York’s progressive fusionist scene. Before deciding to develop her vocal expertise, she played with Steve Coleman, Caron Wheeler, and Lenny White and was invited to audition as bassist for Living Colour. Her work is less assaultive than most of her former employers, but it has a sophistication that draws on both fusion and classic late-period soul.
With Peace Beyond Passion, her second album, Ndegéocello strives for a jazzy, urban-soul concept piece along the lines of previous works by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield. While she lacks these artists’ melodic accessibility, she shares their condemnation of social injustice and indulges in their low-key, soft-focus funk. The result is closer in tone to Gil Scott Heron than to any Motown visionarywhich means her work conflicts with the mainstream in more ways than she might expect.
This is unfortunate, for both her debut, Plantation Lullabies, and her new LP are strong, distinctive albums. The music wraps outspoken observations in dark velvet tones, delivering hard messages in gentle textures. Ndegéocello’s confrontational themes on Peace Beyond Passion may court controversy, but the singer doesn’t simply provoke for the sake of drawing attention. Instead, she strives to deliver a bluntly disturbing treatise on the difficulty of finding spiritual support in a world where people are openly hostile to every aspect of her identity.
Ndegéocello has found herself at odds with the gay and African-American communities over some of her lyrics. In the typically complex “Deuteronomy: Niggerman,” she criticizes rap singers and other African-Americans for adhering to ghetto stereotypes as cultural identity; such roles, she says, play into the way white people want blacks to act. She even targets herself, explaining how she once played “the divine ho’ ” in relationships. Ndegéocello injects several Old Testament quotes into this social commentary, among them, “In pain you shall bring forth children, and you shall be dependent on your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
The books of the Bible pop up in other titles“Leviticus: Faggot,” “Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart”and religious themes abound. Ndegéocello fantasizes in one song about having Mary Magdalene as her lover, and she later sings a beautiful musical lullaby titled “God Shiva.” In “The Way,” she talks about her confusion over kneeling down to pray to a white Jesus and a straight Mother Mary. Her longing chant, “Jesus, save me,” fades into a question, “Oh, sweet Jesus, you say that you could save me?”
Toward the end of the album, Ndegéocello slips in a trio of difficult love songs. One is a whispered come-on to someone clearly off limits in which she sings, “The forbidden always arouses temptation.” “Bittersweet” and the touching “A Tear and a Smile” recognize that, even in the best of circumstances, love carries with it danger as well as the potential for deliverance. She recognizes all the emotional complexities of intimacy in the line, “When we make love, I cry.”
The album’s epic piece is its closer, “Make Me Wanna Holler,” an update of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” In a candid remembrance of her severe upbringing, Ndegéocello tells of her mother, who worked as a maid for a white family and then came home to slave for an abusive, alcoholic husband and father. “I would have sold my soul just to share in one day of my mother’s desired happiness,” she sings near the song’s end. Her delivery is palpable and unforgettable.
Speaking out about one’s convictions can have a liberating effect, and Ndegéocello seems to find a fine freedom in honesty. There’s plenty of passion in her new album, even if it comes in quiet, tenderly measured rhythms. Maybe this release of emotion will give the singer the peace she desires; it may help listeners confront and console themselves as well.
Me’Shell Ndegéocello plays the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, Aug. 10 at Starwood Amphitheatre.