Passionate messenger

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

Published July 22, 1996 11:14AM (EDT)

Its fitting that Me'Shell Ndegiocello found an outlet for her music on
Maverick Records, the aptly-named label started by that singer, record
mogul and pop-cultural force of nature, Madonna. Agent provocateurs
recognize kindred spirits when they hear them.

Ndegiocello's 1993 debut, "Plantation Lullabies," blended an edgy
persona and provocative viewpoints with a loving gloss on '70s soul. With
"Peace Beyond Passion," she continues pushing society's hot buttons --
race, sexuality, religion -- with a sound that's more melodic, polished and
assured than her first outing.

When Ndegiocello (who is appearing at this summer's big H.O.R.D.E.
Festival) first surfaced, there were frequent but largely unjustified
comparisons to Prince. True, both performers came from musical
families, both never heard a funky bass line they couldn't build on, and
both had a talent for negotiating the emotional battleground of the sacred
and the sexual, where agape and eros fight for soul control. But whereas
the artist still known on his bank statements as Prince loves to funk for
its own sake, you get the feeling Ndegiocello's in a deeper battle with
higher stakes -- a fight to exorcise her own demons, and to help exorcise

It's perhaps a little early to think in terms of a breakthrough record,
but the signs are right. On "Peace Beyond Passion," she's erected a sonic
structure by turns lush and bumptious, languid and abrasive. This is music
that, even as it explores social problems on a broad scale, is intensely
personal. She's talking to herself as much as she's talking to us.

For Ndegiocello, in the beginning was the funk, and it's a cornerstone
of this record. But on the devotional "God Shiva," or her gender-bending
take on Bill Withers' "Who Is He and What Is He to You," or the album's
first single, "Leviticus: Faggot," Ndegiocello delivers funk imbued with a
conscience. That by itself isn't exactly new: Curtis Mayfield tackled
important issues early on, and in "What's Going On," Marvin Gaye created a
classic that wed social commentary to a silken, righteous Motown groove.
But this is the '90s; Ndegiocello's spin on matters is more provocative
(that word again), and every bit as musically satisfying. The sex-and-soul
duality of her style comes to the fore in "God Shiva" and "Leviticus:
Faggot," while "A Tear and a Smile" is an incendiary expression of sexual
passion and longing that powerfully highlights the range of her smoky alto.

In two albums, Ndegiocello has taken on weightier issues than
many artists have the stomach to challenge in 10 -- interracial frictions,
homophobia and religious intolerance have all figured in her pithy, soulful,
personal agitprop. One can't wait to hear what's next.

By Michael E. Ross

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