- Diggin’ You Like Those Ol’ Soul Records: Meshell Ndegeocello and the Expanding Definition of Funk in Postsoul America
Today’s absolutist varieties of Black Nationalism have run into trouble when faced with the need to make sense of the increasingly distinct forms of black culture produced from various diaspora populations. . . . The unashamedly hybrid character of these black cultures continually confounds any simplistic (essentialist or antiessentialist) understanding of the relationship between racial identity and racial nonidentity, between folk cultural authenticity and pop cultural betrayal.Paul Gilroy1
Funk, from its beginnings as terminology used to describe a specific genre of black music, has been equated with the following things: blackness, masculinity, personal and collective freedom, and the groove. Even as the genre and terminology gave way to new forms of expression, the performance aesthetic developed by myriad bands throughout the 1960s and 1970s remained an important part of post-1970s black popular culture. In the early 1990s, rhythm and blues (R&B) splintered into a new substyle that reached back to the live instrumentation and infectious grooves of funk but also reflected a new racial and social consciousness that was rooted in the experiences of the postsoul generation. One of the pivotal albums advancing this style was Meshell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies (1993). Ndegeocello’s sound was an amalgamation of [End Page 181] several things. She was one part Bootsy Collins, inspiring listeners to dance to her infectious bass lines; one part Nina Simone, schooling one about life, love, hardship, and struggle in post–Civil Rights Movement America; and one part Sarah Vaughn, experimenting with the numerous timbral colors of her voice. One critic called her a “jazzy Odetta with gangster rapper inflections,” insinuating that her raw and organic sound and instrumental performances linked her with the singer/guitarist who inspired an evolution in the racial and cultural consciousness of blacks during the height of the freedom movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the explicit “in-your-face” aesthetic of gangsta rap.2 Others referred to her as “the female Prince,” noting strong similarities between the two musicians.3 Indeed, both wrote, produced, and played the majority of the instruments heard on their debut albums. The level of genre-bending musical experimentation in which both have engaged at times has also placed them on the periphery of black music trends and black radio formatting. Their respective public images and stage personas reflect how both have challenged mainstream readings of sexuality and gender by creating ambiguity through androgynous dress and lyrics that convey at times the spectrum of love relationships. Regardless of these readings, it was clear that Ndegeocello’s entrance and presence on the mainstream stage of 1990s popular music challenged perceptions and definitions of performance (musical and otherwise), gender identity, and conceptions of blackness as America awaited the “newness” of the next century. But what helped propel Prince to new levels of popularity among “alternative” audiences seemingly stifled the career of Ndegeocello.
Plantation Lullabies advanced a style that consisted of live instrumentation coupled with street-smart lyrics reflective of the influence of 1960s poets Giovanni, Sanchez, and Scott-Heron and a vocal style that harkened back to 1970s soul singers like Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. However, less than two years after its release, the confluence of style heard on the album was illustrative of the neosoul or “alternative” R&B style that some positioned as the representative of the postsoul generation’s return to the “old-school” performance aesthetics of the previous decades. Despite being initially linked with this style and its resulting milieu, by 1997 and 1998, when Erykah Badu’s album Baduizm and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, respectively, dropped, Ndegeocello was noticeably absent from discussions about how the genre of neosoul was birthing a more conscious female voice and perspective in postfunk black popular music. She would only be heard on black radio when her music revisited the funk-jazz fusion sound of the popular “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” or “Dred Loc,” both from Plantation Lullabies. While some critics and intellectuals positioned Hill’s and Badu’s albums as being important hallmarks...