Canon Fire: Songbook subversions from Meshell Ndegeocello

When you were in grade school, did you ever create a self-portrait collage from cut-and-pasted magazine clippings? That’s often what covers albums feel like: Skewed memoirs assembled from lost-and-found media, disparate materials that somehow add up to a warped yet truthful reflection of the auteur. Such is the case with Ventriloquism, an assembly of interpretive performances from Meshell Ndegeocello—a portrait of the artist as a deep conceptual thinker, a champion of diversity, a questioner of canon, a faithful dissident.

Ndegeocello has never made the same album twice, nor has she ever released anything that’s merely a collection of songs: There’s always clear intellectual scaffolding to her records, and with Ventriloquism those ideological frameworks provide several points of entry. The most obvious is the album’s representational value: The 11 songs here comprise works from artists of color, and about half are songs by women. Inclusivity is built into this record from the ground up, and it’s reflected in song selections that come from the R&B, quiet storm, and new jack swing scenes of the 1980s through the early 1990s—songs all too frequently ignored when questions of canon are considered. In their original iterations, these songs were cheerfully featherweight, assembled from the stiff synths and drum machines that were en vogue at the time. Their fizzy-pop vivacity is a big part of their charm, yet it’s easy for effervescence to scan as ephemerality. Ndegeocello’s key subversive flourish is to add weight to them, making spectral songs feel wholly embodied. A performance of Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s bubbly “I Wonder if I Take You Home” trades the jittery loops of the original for the muscle and grit of live percussion, seeming to revel in the loudness of snares and the cavernous kick drum boom. At times the drums careen almost out of control, as if to flaunt the freedom found beyond the drum machine’s straight jacket. The song is proudly physical, but also bursting with ideas: It flirts with drum ‘n’ bass and reaches for hip-hop DJ effects, but ultimately settles into the sort of gnarled funk you might find on a D’Angelo album. Similarly, Ndegeocello adds ballast to Prince’s “Sometimes it Snows in April,” and without any radical retooling of the Parade arrangement. She shifts the focus from nimble piano playing to resonant guitars and bass, and the effect is to add considerable weariness and weight to the song, which is now and forever saddled with mortality, sorrow, and lamentation.

Much of Ventriloquism is played in the language of Americana or singer/songwriter fare, though Ndegeocello’s bass work ensures that each song maintains its sense of swing. Acoustic guitar and harmonica tropes have never wanted for respect within the pop canon, and Ndegeocello uses them not to legitimize these songs so much as shift the focus beyond the dated production choices to the strong bones that have always been there, just below the surface. She makes explicit something that’s often forgotten—that these songs are the products of serious songcraft, just as any Bob Dylan or Neil Young original. George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” is played here, with layers upon layers of kitsch sanded away; Ndegeocello’s performance is an act of excavation not unlike what Dylan did on his Great American Songbook albums. Yet even in paring things down, she finds room for an entire universe of sound—cosmic keyboard swirls, call-and-response vocals, rattling hand percussion, and sick slabs of greasy guitar funk. Her take on TLC’s “Waterfalls” is even more radical: She performs it as an acoustic guitar ballad, allowing the wistful lyrics and cascading vocal lines speak for themselves.

Her tinkering with ideas of authenticity and “real” music, and the way they play out across questions of canon and culture, allow for backdoor explorations of other issues, like gender. On “Sensitivity,” Ralph Tresvant’s ode to kind-and-gentle manliness, Ndegeocello maintains the original masculine pronouns; singing in character may not be subversive in and of itself, but her decision to recast the song as an old soft-shoe shuffle certainly is, underscoring how antiquated the idea of decent, respectful manhood can seem. It’s a joyful performance, with synth squelches decorating the periphery and a parade of woodwinds stomping through the song’s bridge. Still, in the end, the record’s greatest illuminations come in moments of earnest clarity: Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies” sounds skeletal and haunted here, a song stripped to the bone by time’s forward march; and “Tender Love,” originally by Force M.D.’s, is done in acoustic singer/songwriter mode, without any subversion built into its performance—just an offer of vulnerability and need. All of these songs and ideas happily co-exist on Ventriloquism, held together not only by their ideological underpinnings but also by the singer’s clear affection for this, her chosen canon. The album contains multitudes, and is fiercely original.

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