If Me’Shell Ndegéocello’s phenomenal debut didn’t singlehandedly reinvigorate ’90s funk on the hip-hop side, it wasn’t for lack of effort. A dust-clearing blast of imagination and richly realized vision, the highly charged album unveiled an intricate, intelligent black woman with a lot on her mind and ample talent to express herself. A political, sexual and cultural manifesto that eschews dogma for a more instinctual outpouring, Plantation Lullabies introduces a conscious, self-contained universe still in the process of sorting itself out.
The bass-playing singer/songwriter (who was born a Johnson in Berlin and raised in Washington DC before relocating to New York in the early ’90s: her adopted surname is Swahili for “free like a bird”) conflates culture, romance, nostalgia and politics in the percolating “I’m Diggin’ You (Like an Old Soul Record)” and reveals a ruthless competitive streak in “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).” She walks an edgy personal line in lacerating the politics and suicide of dope (“Shoot’n’ Up and Gett’n High”), rips apart sexual and aesthetic racism in “Soul on Ice” and lets her soft romantic heart bleed in “Outside Your Door.” A bravura collection of contradictory impulses delivered on platters of simmering, subtle grooves and rapped in a variety of engaging voices, Plantation Lullabies puts a provocative mind to music that mainly means to move the feet.
Having received more critical acclaim than commercial success for her best shot, Ndegéocello found backdoor fame the following year when her duet with John Mellencamp on Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” became a Top 5 single.
Dispensing with rap (although she does talk her way through the Freudian self-analysis in a free adaptation of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues”) and adding an arty pop sheen, Ndegéocello comes on like a livelier, more provocative Des’ree on Peace Beyond Passion, a religiously themed reflection that sounds like an old soul record. There’s a certain dissonance between the music’s alluring tug and the rough lyrics of “Deuteronomy: Niggerman” (“My view of self was that of a divine ho”) and “Leviticus: Faggot,” but the playing — by a team of Oliver Lake (drums), David Fiuczynski (guitar) and Wendy Melvoin (guitar), with guest shots by organist Billy Preston, saxophonist Joshua Redman and guitarist Wah Wah Watson — gives the singer a handsome vintage bed on which to lay her thorny roses.