Album Review: Ventriloquism by Meshell Ndegeocello
Great, Based on 4 Critics
AllMusic - 80 Based on rating 8/10
Covers have been part of Meshell Ndegeocello album sessions since 1996, when the masterful bassist and undervalued vocalist updated Bill Withers' "Who Is He and What Is He to You. " Her late-2000s/early-2010s repertoire included radically reshaped versions of songs originally recorded by and/or associated with Ready for the World, Leonard Cohen, the Soul Children, Nina Simone, and Whodini. For this creative all-covers set bearing an incompatible title, Ndegeocello concentrates on the era that birthed the Ready for the World and Whodini tracks -- the mid- to late '80s, primarily her late-teenage years -- with wistfulness applied only when the material calls for it.
Questions of identity loom large on Meshell Ndegeocello's Ventriloquism, a collection of 11 cover songs, as the singer's selections embody her allegiance to diversity, inclusion, and imagination. It's no accident that the songwriters she favors here are artists of color, and that many of them are women—and given Ndegeocello's career-long disinterest in acknowledging boundaries, it's noteworthy that she maintains the original pronouns of each song. But if Ventriloquism is an album about identity, it's also one about canon.
Some songs are rooms within rooms, vast interconnected musical systems. Meshell Ndegeocello gets this; many of her own compositions end at a considerable distance from where they began, teleporting freely from chord to chord. But Ndegeocello understands that songs can also be rooms unto themselves. Sometimes they are even less than a room--they can be a closet, or a corner.
How do you improve upon classics by Prince, Sade and George Clinton? In most cases, you don't. But Meshell Ndegeocello's Ventriloquism is a rare exception: on this covers album, she pulls new beauty out of favourites from yesteryear.
Sonically, Ventriloquism is risky. Ndegeocello's blend of funk, folk, bluegrass and soul forces you to forget what you know about the songs you hold dear and at times, it gets uncomfortable.