In the canon of R&B, the ‘80s are frequently dismissed as the genre’s most soulless decade. Nelson George called it “the death of rhythm and blues” in his book of the same name, citing the now infamous Harvard Report on marketing black music (commissioned by then-CBS Records exec Clive Davis) as the impetus for the industry’s switch from indifference to a vested interest in R&B. By 1980, he writes, CBS’ roster of black artists had jumped from two to 125 — and as the decade progressed, that sonic integration led to a watered-down R&B sound. Synthesizers replaced live bands. Commercial radio quelled the funk with the Quiet Storm. “Crossover” became the profit motive for packaging black artists for white consumption.
But if you were coming of age in the ‘80s, like a teenaged Michelle Lynn Johnson — who took on the name Ndegeocello around the same time Prince began musing over the woman in the raspberry beret — all those behind-the-scenes industry machinations are incidental to a period whose output soundtracked your adolescence with some of the most emotionally indulgent R&B and pop of the latter 20th century. Meshell Ndegeocello has always been a soul conjurer of sorts, bent but never bound by tradition. With her latest body of work, Ventriloquism, out March 16, she splits the difference — stitching together a wide swath of songs that reflect what we remember, and even regret, of the era in which her own artistic sensibilities were taking root, distilling its clichés into a rootsy, bluesy folk romp.
As with most cover sets, the story is in the song selection. What may at first seem like a random mix of one-off hits from beloved-but-unsung artists (Force MDs, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Surface, Al B. Sure!) and influential megastars (George Clinton, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Sade) is actually a carefully curated homage to some of the era’s definitive sonic innovators. It’s a perfect collection for an artist whose genre-bending fusion of rock, soul, funk and R&B befuddled an industry still beholden to racially-coded designations (i.e. “urban”) when she entered the scene.
Full Force, the muscle-bound hip-hop band and production crew who would go on to contribute early hits to ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys a decade later, is represented here with its flirty bop for Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, “I Wonder If I Take You Home.” Al B. Sure! and his cousin and co-producer Kyle West, who turned the wannabe rapper into a viable R&B act and Right On! magazine teen heartthrob practically overnight, stumbled upon a precursor to Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing with the release of Sure’s 1988 debut In Effect Mode. Ndegeocello’s guitar-laced interpretation of the album’s first single, “Nite and Day,” conveys a maturity far beyond the hormonal pangs expressed by a teenaged Al B. at the time.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who extended Prince’s Minneapolis sound and left a sonic dent on the decade that nearly rivals that of their early mentor, get three nods with “Tender Love” (Force MDs), “Sensitivity” (Ralph Tresvant) and “Funny How Time Flies” (Janet Jackson). Even TLC’s biggest hit, the Organized Noize-produced “Waterfalls” from 1994, finds its way into the mix.
It’s not just who Ndegeocello redoes, however, but what she does to these songs that matters here. She recorded this album with her band (Chris Bruce, guitar; Abraham Rounds, drums; Jebin Bruni, keys and co-production) in Los Angeles, where they spent a lot of time listening to Neil Young‘s country-rock classic, Harvest. There’s a sense of detachment and dissonance here that has as much to do with the wistful mourning of a period as it does the celebration of innocence. A cover of “Sometimes It Snows In April” — the Under The Cherry Moon ballad that resurfaced after Prince’s death — captures both, playing like a national anthem of our collective sorrows.
“The year around the recording of this album was so disorienting and dispiriting for me personally and for so many people I know and spoke to all the time,” Ndegeocello writes in a statement accompanying the release. “I looked for a way to make something that was light while things around me were so dark, a musical place to go that reminded me of another, brighter time.”
Ventriloquism simultaneously plays with the contrasts between songs and the contradictions within them. Peep how Tresvant’s “Sensitivity” gets a vaudevillian redux, complete with jangly banjo flourishes that, intentionally or not, both parody and applaud the song’s gender-norm defiance: “You need a man with sensitivity / A man like me,” Ndegeocello sings, purposely leaving Tresvant’s pronouns intact. Her treatment adds a layer of history to an R&B hit that, even at the time of its 1990 release, seemed comical in contrast to the rising tide of hypermasculinity embodied in hip-hop, which dominated the streets despite having yet to receive black radio’s full embrace. The gender study continues with the two big closers of the set: “Private Dancer,” reset to waltz time, is slowed enough to sound like the funeral dirge that always existed at the heart of that song. And Sade’s gigolo ode “Smooth Operator” gets revamped from Caribbean-inflected smooth jazz to a close cousin of UK drum and bass.
Ndegeocello’s relationship with the airwaves has been tenuous from the start, and Ventriloquism stands in line with how she’s consistently defied the industry’s failed attempts to pin her down to the narrow parameters that largely defined ‘80s R&B. But beyond that, she reawakens the rhythm and the blues by returning songs to their original sender, wrapped in different packaging. The electro-bounce of George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” gets retrofitted into the gutbucket tradition from which it descends, with twangy guitars up top and a caterwauling vocal bubbling beneath. A country harmonica twists Force MDs’ “Tender Love” from citified doo-wop into a sweet Appalachian bluegrass ballad.
“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,” the artist writes. “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.” Ventriloquism is more than a reinterpretation of songs from the era’s urban/pop catalog; it’s a resuscitation. Somehow, Ndegeocello breathes old soul into a collection of post-soul classics and elevates them to their rightful place in the pantheon.