SiNCE her soulful debut 14 years ago, Me'shell Ndegéocello's music has conveyed want. Lust and lack have underpinned the singer/songwriter's output, which has covered the waterfront of style and sentiment and shone light on its coves. Just recall her nimble cover of Bill Wither's "Who Is He and What Is He to You," a funk-laden, same-sex interpretation that stood out but didn't call attention to itself. Gimmickry is not Ndegéocello's game, candor is. And with the release of her seventh studio album, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, Ndegéocello upends again in unassuming fashion.
"I was told to wait for the man of my dreams," explains Ndegéocello via email the day before her New York record release party. "I waited and he didn't come, so I had to become him."
Ndegéocello's career suggests that becoming the man of her dreams has less do with suitors than druthers. She has persistently lit out for new sounds, looked inward for new ideas, and bandied licks with an impressive sampling of contemporary greats to improve her musicianship. What remains constant are the themes running through her body of work. As Ndegéocello tells it, "My life is still plagued and blessed by the same shit as ever: guilt, discipline, living, loving, and believing." But having abbreviated her lyrics and gone opaque, the confessionals and cultural commentary are less intelligible. Mood reigns. Ndegéocello, as she sees it, positioned herself to "untangle it."
Motley in contributors and content, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams rollicks with sonic diversity. Primed by the jazz explorations of her last release, The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel, to "make structure out of the abstract and abstract out of the structure," Ndegéocello streamlined her increasingly opaque lyrics and stretched out, showcasing her chops and those of guests Oliver Lake, Pat Metheny, and Robert Glasper. Punk figures prominently too. There is the vaguely political "The Sloganeer: Paradise," dusky and danceable thanks to stuttering drums and Ndegéocello's Brit-inflected exhortation to "get a bang out of life," and the up-tempo "Article 3," featuring South African singer Thandiswa Mazwai. Rounding out the cast is Sy Smith, whose dulcet soprano foils Ndegéocello's sometimes masculine whir.
Ndegéocello's successfully adapted the grand scope of the album to the practicalities of the road, thanks to a tight six-piece band. In contrast, Ndegéocello's stage presence is subdued: her mohawk sometimes shrouded in skull cap or hoodie, eyes closed, head lolled back, body swaying or spinning into meditative dance. She doesn't make much eye contact with the audience and is unlikely to dig into her back catalogue. As to fans' disappointed expectations, Ndegéocello stands firm in an unwillingness "to dwell in the past," and a commitment "to be here now." A "man" of her word, Ndegéocello unveiled brand-spanking new compositions alongside selections from The World... and a timely Joy Division cover at her recent record release party. Characteristically, she satisfied the throng while leaving them wanting more.