Mention the name Meshell Ndegeocello to the average music fan and you’ll likely receive a “huh?” in response. There may be a handful of people who remember her from her brief brush with MTV fame in the mid ’90s, thanks to the hit single “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” and her presence on John Mellencamp’s Top 10 cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” The average music fan would probably conclude that Meshell was merely a blip on the pop music radar.
The average music fan would be wrong.
However, despite never achieving (or actively courting) mainstream success, Meshell has built up a rabid and well-deserved cult following in the 16 years since her Grammy-nominated debut, Plantation Lullabies, the album that virtually kicked off the “neo-soul” movement that spawned D’Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu, among others. In that time, the singer/songwriter/bassist/bandleader/rapper/poet has become her generation’s answer to Prince (although thankfully releasing albums at a more leisurely pace). Criss-crossing genres with ease, taking unflinching looks at religion and racial and sexual politics while also bringing incredible musicianship to everything she touches, Meshell just might be the most overlooked and underrated artist — in any musical genre — of the past 20 years.
Meshell’s latest release (the eighth of her career) is entitled Devil’s Halo, a title the artist came up with to symbolize that “there are gray areas in music and life.” Created with a tight four-piece band, Halo is a moody, atmospheric album that slightly recalls her 1999 conceptual masterpiece Bitter. This is certainly the most guitar-centric album of Meshell’s career, leaning more towards the pop/rock side of the spectrum. However, a collection of radio-ready Top 40 ditties this ain’t. Meshell doesn’t care much for typical pop song construction; most of these songs don’t have a typical verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus structure. However, they’re as addictive a listen as anything you hear on contemporary hit radio, due not only to Meshell’s smoky singing voice — an instrument that thankfully sacrifices pyrotechnics at the expense of emotion — but also to the musicianship of her supporting players.
Most of the songs on Devil’s Halo seem to focus on relationships. Whether it’s the loud/soft dynamic of the opening track, “Slaughter,” the hypnotic throb of the album’s instrumental title track, the stark, banjo-flecked “Crying in Your Beer” or the snaky ska/punk-inspired rhythms of “Mass Transit” and “White Girl,” these 12 songs communicate longing, desire and loneliness — feelings that go way beyond the surface. Even the songs that at first glance might sound like fairly typical slow jams, such as the Prince-ish “Hair of the Dog,” end up featuring a special twist (in this song’s case, some ghostly cello by Lisa Germano).
You might end up doing a spit take when you hear Meshell’s excellent deconstruction and reconstruction of Ready for the World’s Jheri curl-era Quiet Storm classic “Love You Down.” Spotlighting a woofer-crunching bass part and a tempo perfect for creating some between-the-sheets action, Meshell turns a slightly raunchy teen-soul ballad into an adult, erotic masterpiece, complete with Vernon Reid-esque guitar pyrotechnics at the song’s conclusion. It manages to become its own beast while simultaneously nodding its head at the original…and you’ll never hear Ready for the World quite the same way again (for the six of you reading who might actually own a RFTW album).
Coming in at a compact 37 minutes, and managing to cram everything from free-form jazz to folk textures into that short running time, Devil’s Halo is an intriguing entry in the discography of one of the most distinct, fearless artists in music today. Focusing mainly on matters of the heart without being a tear-in-your-beer breakup album like Bitter was, it’s the most straightforward, “one listen and you get it” record of Meshell’s career. Over the last few years, as true artistry seems to have faded from the music scene in general and the black music scene specifically, any new Meshell record has been like a cool glass of water in the desert, and Devil’s Halo is no different.