Revisiting a masterpiece by Meshell Ndegeocello

Album cover of Meshell Ndegeocello's masterpieceThirteen years have passed since Meshell Ndegeocello released her masterpiece The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams—fourteen years if you count the five-song EP that preceded the release by a year. Despite knowing from her previous albums that she refused to be locked into one box, The World still came as a shock to many fans, including me. It took a few listens to understand her drive to defy expectations—expectations about genre, about how a pop song flows, about lyrics and meaning. Beautiful fragments, incomplete closure, fleeting moments, dissonance, shapeshifting… This is the vocabulary of The World. I explored this and other albums in more depth in Elliptical: The Music of Meshell Ndegeocello, co-written with Andre Akinyele. But I wanted to revisit some of those perspectives here.

The Songs That Make This a Masterpiece

The World draws from many genres: rock, punk, soul, hip-hop, sci-fi, jazz, world music. And just as it defies categorization, it defies pop song formulas. The songs take kaleidoscopic shifts and right turns. Unexpected tags and intrusions derail our expectations. The World subverts verse/chorus patterns (“Evolution,” “Article 3,” “Elliptical,” “Michelle Johnson”). Songs end with radically different passages from the rest of the song (“Evolution,” “Article 3,” “Michelle Johnson,” “Solomon,” “Relief: A Stripper Class”). Other songs comprise fragments strung together like beads (“Virgo,” “Headline,” “A Different Girl: Every Night” on the Japanese release). In its defiance of the formulaic, the album sets up an anti-pop ethos.

Tracks 1-5

The introductory track “Haditha”, simultaneously referring to a compendium of sayings by Mohammed and the city where Marines killed a group of unarmed civilians, lets us know we’re in unusual territory. This spoken-word opening flows directly into “Sloganeer,” a frenetic whirlwind told from the perspective of a suicide bomber. Both tracks straddle sympathy and sarcasm, mirroring perhaps her own ambivalence about religions, whether Christianity or Islam, which celebrate compassion yet direct animosity toward people who are different. Lines like “Get a bang out of life” make it hard to pin down whether Ndegeocello is being ironic or serious. Perhaps both. It wouldn’t be the first time she has toyed with contradictory impulses in her music. But she pulls it off here with masterful balance.

In “Evolution,” Ndegeocello sings about the end of the human race and burning beneath the sun—a not-so-oblique reference to humanity destroying itself through global warming. Bleakly orchestrated, the song proceeds without chords in the first section, the voice sitting in a different key from the notes outlined by the guitar, creating dissonances and unease. The song finally settles into D minor as it moves into a contrasting instrumental section. The bass takes over with a plaintive melodic line after the voice has vanished from the scene, which subtly reinforces the feeling of humanity disappearing from the earth.

With the fourth track, “Virgo,” we’ve moved into more upbeat territory. What is our purpose?, the song asks. “To make love and manifest Creation.” The song defies verse/chorus structure, as if freed from everyday constraints. The fifth track, “Lovely Lovely,” expresses gratitude for a beautiful lover. The verse traces a familiar chord progression, but the harmony in the chorus sits simultaneously in E major and E minor. Again, as if freed from the normal constraints.

Tracks 6-8

“Elliptical” reinforces the space-age theme that appears throughout The World in songs like “Virgo,” “Headline,” “Michelle Johnson,” and the bonus track “Soul Spaceship.” The song adopts a gentle cyber lounge style about an extraterrestrial given instructions to explore how humans make love.

“Shirk” originally appeared in an episode of Noah’s Arc on relationship betrayal, but here the song takes on the meaning of another kind of betrayal in the context of “Haditha,” “Sloganeer,” and “Article 3.” Lyrics such as “You believe you did nothing wrong to lead us down this road,” “while you sit there on your throne,” and “I’m sorry I left you no home” raise images of President George W. Bush and the march to war in Iraq under the false pretense of weapons of mass destruction. Shirk means to neglect a responsibility, and as with other instances where Ndegeocello embraces contrasting elements simultaneously, the song can be read either way, as a lover’s betrayal or as a nation’s betrayal.

“Article 3” refers to the Geneva Convention’s stricture against torture. Coming after “Shirk,” it adds another dimension to the theme of betrayal. The brief, compressed lyrics cover territory from feeling oppressed by standards of beauty to the proliferation of lies in a world that wants to lock people away because of their faith. Meshell used a lyric she had earlier written for a song about the imprisoned boxer “Hurricane” Carter: “I’m the offspring of an obsolete machine.” That lyric, in tandem with the line “you want to lock me away,” suggests the story of Carter’s innocent imprisonment inspired her when she wrote “Article 3.” The song extends that theme more broadly in the context of America’s use of torture in the “war on terror,” but Carter’s experience and the experience of so many black men being imprisoned adds another layer of meaning.

Tracks 9-12 and Bonus Tracks

In “Michelle Johnson” (Ndegeocello’s birth name), the singer recognizes her imperfections. She does some things right, but other things wrong, and prays for guidance to do better. The song “Headline” gives us another anti-pop track that jettison’s verse/chorus structure. The lyrics recount some of the absurd things that appear on the front page. The song is a fragment, a mere tease, passing as quickly as it started, like our short attention span for news stories.

“Solomon” presents Meshell’s love letter to her son in the form of a prayer, and begins with Jack Bean reciting a letter from a father to a child. Meshell implores her son to shine, and thanks her parents for giving her life. She praises the Creator, understands that worldly things come and go. The music pauses while Bean finishes the letter, then the music changes direction, slowing into new material and moving from C sharp minor to the brighter A major. The chord changes to C major, then subtly returns to C sharp minor at the very end with a half step motion in the bass. It’s a beautiful passage with a high, soulful synth melody, passing too quickly, like life.

“Relief: A Stripper Classic” starts off with spacey ambience. Drums enter, with electric guitar and bass playing a parallel melodic line slightly behind the beat. The narrator asks if her lover will still be there when beauty fades, when the drugs run out, when even God has forsaken her. It’s a meditation on the hope for abiding love. The music transforms into a jazzy improvisation with Robert Glasper on piano. Singer Sy Smith answers with the affirmation, “Let me comfort you.” But the song abruptly cuts off, like a life passing, and a strange static sound ends the song. The soul becoming an electrical signal in space? This is the official end of the album, but two other songs were included as bonus tracks on some releases: “A Different Girl: Every Night” for the Japanese release, and “Soul Spaceship” for the European and U.S. releases.

Conclusion

With so many musical nuances scattered throughout this album, I constantly find something new, which keeps the music fresh and interesting. If you don’t know this masterpiece, or passed it over too quickly, spend some time with it. You’ll be richly rewarded.

Exploring a musical masterpiece in "Elliptical: The Music of Meshell Ndegeocello"For a more in-depth exploration of this masterpiece and Meshell’s other music, check out Elliptical: The Music of Meshell Ndegeocello.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.