Meshell Ndegéocello was mixing conscious lyrics, hip-hop aesthetics and neo-soul vocal stylings long before Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu or Jill Scott. Way back in 1993, her Plantation Lullabies drew the template these later and more commercially successful artists would follow. While they have been blessed with the greenbacks, Meshell remains artistically non-pareil.
Indeed, I would argue that Meshell Ndegéocello synthesizes the scope and history of black music more successfully than any other artist at work today. From gospel to go-go, funk to soul, hip hop to jazz, blues to balladry, her music seamlessly weaves these threads into something that feels, well, important in a way very little pop music does these days.
Her 1996 masterpiece, Peace Beyond Passion, coiled Meshell’s sinuous bass playing and confessional lyrics around blaxploitation guitars and Joshua Redmon’s knotty tenor sax lines. Bitter, her more acoustic 1999 offering, was an elegaic rumination on love and faith lost.
Meshell’s latest release, Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtapes, is a thicker joint that takes “bass is the place” as its working motto. Bottom-heavy and happy about it, Cookie’s 19 cuts pare Meshell’s vast musical vocabulary with her various personal and political concerns. “Dead Nigga Boulevard, Pt. 1” is a wicked rip on thug life and its depredations while “Pocket Book” swings with insouciance through a woman’s search for balance.
Scattered liberally throughout the songs are recorded snippets, long and short, of Angela Davis, Gil Scott Heron, June Jordan and various other poets and politicos. As it invariably will, this technique interrupts the aesthetic space of “song” and pushes the proceedings into another sphere, something more like spoken-word with musical accompaniment.
And that, in fact, is the central gambit of Cookie, which listens more like a scrapbook or sketchbook than a collection of well-formed songs. It’s interesting, even compelling, but also sprawling and meandering and lacking the shapeliness of her earlier works. Devotees will go with it, but for those seeking an introduction to Meshell, Peace Beyond Passion remains her high water mark.