Bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, creator of the “neo-soul” genre, has just released her fifth album, the cosmic “Comfort Woman.” For those who are entirely unfamiliar with Ndegeocello, she has recorded with various, more mainstream artists, like the Rolling Stones, Lenny Kravitz and Madonna (Ndegeocello was the first female artist to sign to Madonna’s Maverick Records in 1993). But most will remember her phenomenal bass and vocal work on John Mellencamp’s cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” Ndegeocello, (which means “free like a bird” in Swahili), has received nine Grammy nominations, and with “Comfort Woman,” it seems like a tenth should be headed her way.
Although Ndegeocello’s previous four albums haven’t exactly been the work of a novice, their unpredictability leaves “Comfort Woman” entirely without precedent. Her 2002 album, “Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape,” is just like its title suggests, covering a range of styles. 1999’s “Bitter” is a comparatively quiet, mainly acoustic album, more coherent in its style. “Peace Beyond Passion,” released in 1996, is more hip-hop/funk, as is “Plantation Lullabies,” from 1993, which relies heavily on spoken lyrics and a funky sensibility.
“Comfort Woman,” on the other hand, is not only the most coherent as a concept album, but takes the sensuality of many of Ndegeocello’s previous songs to a whole new level. This is a mood album. Don’t listen to it alone, and don’t listen to it with friends. Make sure you’ve got the appropriate lighting and plenty of time. Mick Jagger is going to have to retire his Sade collection for this album.
As a side note, as soon as I looked up “Comfort Woman” on Amazon.com, “So You’d Like To — Explore Lesbian Music” came on-screen. The writer’s take on Meshell is that she “is a multi-talented rhythmic soul artist (a.k.a. hip-hop with brains)” who “gets down and dirty with sexual politics.” So if you can’t actually be sexual with this album, you can interpret its political implications. Once midterms are over, of course, because this is no album to listen to when you’re over-caffeinated and pulling an all-nighter, believe me.
The album’s cover — a beglittered Ndegeocello in profile against a galactic backdrop — says it all. Throughout the album, Ndegeocello’s vocals are low and hypnotic. “Love Song #1” (one of three “Love Songs”) is a spacey, psychedelic song rooted in a strong bass beat. If that doesn’t set the tone, “Come Smoke My Herb,” is a little heavier on the bass, a little lighter on the psychedelic. The drumbeat on “Andromeda & the Milky Way,” is simply amazing. The beat lightens up a bit in the next songs, moving into a funkier style, but picks up again when the slow love songs like “Liliquoi Moon” creep back in.
For those who don’t have the option of blue lighting, incense and massage oil, not all of the tracks on this album are unbearable to listen to alone in a well-lit room. “Fellowship” has a reggae vibe and contains lyrics from Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up,” but it’s about as fast-paced as the album gets. The next track, “Good Intentions,” moves back towards chill, and the last track, “Thankful,” has a slow, mesmerizing beat that wraps up the album. If the album has a single weak spot, it is “Love Song #3,” which wavers between being funky and a slow love song, and turns out to be neither.
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