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There are albums dedicated to personal pain, or political protest, love, death, nostalgia, rage. There are those that are simply fun, glossy, the soundtrack to a good time. Some are exploratory, a musical journey, shapeshifting soundmaking, a new way to do an old thing. An artist can make a choice about concept and content, or heed a vision, follow their muse or their manager. But in times so extreme and overwhelming, when there is no known expression for the feeling, no satisfactory direction for art or action, then they might take refuge in a process, a ritual, something familiar, the shape and sound of which recall another time altogether, so that they can weather the present long enough to call it the past. Some albums are testimony, some confessions, and some are escape. Ventriloquism, the latest album from Meshell Ndegeocello, is a place, like its process, to take refuge from one storm too many.
Musically, Ventriloquism has the hallmarks of all of Ndegeocello’s work, lush and investigative, subversive and sublime. As always, she pays tribute to her diverse influences and in these eleven covers, we hear them layered over one another. Ndegeocello filters “Tender Love” through a folky, Californian filter and brings Vaudevillian accents to “Sensitivity”. She recreates “Smooth Operator” in five, and turns “Private Dancer” into a sultry waltz. The reimagining affords not just a new musical experience but also a comment on the narrow expectations of sounds and structures for black artists and black music.
“Early on in my career, I was told to make the same kind of album again and again, and when I didn’t do that, I lost support. There isn’t much diversity within genres, which are ghettoizing themselves, and I liked the idea of turning hits I loved into something even just a little less familiar or formulaic. It was an opportunity to pay a new kind of tribute.”
This album was recorded in Los Angeles with the familiar family of partners and players that Meshell has worked with for years. Chris Bruce plays guitar, Abraham Rounds is on drums, Jebin Bruni co-produced the album and plays keys. S. Husky Huskolds engineered while Pete Min mixed and mastered. Lasting and collaborative relationships with her fellow musicians is among the most important parts of music making for Meshell, prompting her to say on more than one occasion: “Meshell Ndegeocello is a band”.