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Black, bald, bisexual mother of one Me’Shell Ndegeocello introduced herself in 1993 by saying that she had just fucked your boyfriend. With a big bass guitar hanging high on her small, powerful frame, the singing, songwriting powerhouse—born in Berlin but raised right here in Washington, D.C.—turned her taunt into a sing-along schoolyard chant: “Boyfriend, boyfriend, yes I had your boyfriend.” Never has being cuckolded been such a pleasure: Her hot, randy debut, Plantation Lullabies, was full of the brashest, funkiest sounds to play on pop radio since the airwaves poured purple rain.
Her 1996 sophomore statement, Peace Beyond Passion, was a much more religious experience—about spiritual, not sexual, fidelity—but her delivery remained in-your-face, and the bloated beats still bit back. The first single was a vicious gay-rights diatribe titled, without a care for commercial concerns, “Leviticus: Faggot.” Despite upping the ante on lyrical solemnity, though, Ndegeocello rewarded her flock with the expected allotment of ass-wigglin’ free-style jams. The woman still knew how to throw a shindig.
But then something happened. Some guy or some gal, some lover or some friend, screwed this woman up real good. She was burned, jilted, dumped. Hard to imagine, but in 1999, Ndegeocello would never think of bedding your boyfriend—no matter how hard you begged. Extended L.A. heartache has left the entertainer in an emotionally run-down mood, and the new Bitter, only her third album in six years, is a lush but funkless examination of all those morning-after misgivings. Yes, the 12-track, 48-minute album is smooth and thoughtful and deliciously depressing, but, for the first time, Ndegeocello—without the smoldering aggression and confrontational funk; Me’Shell as sexual victim, not sexual warrior—is strange, and ultimately unsatisfying, company. Apparently, the party, for now, is over.
Bitter, which arrives in stores Aug. 24, opens with “Adam,” a cello-veined instrumental that swells to “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” proportions, and segues into “Fool of Me,” which asks the question “Was I blind to the truth/Just there to fill the space/’Cause now you have no interest in/Anything that I have to say.” And the melancholy vibe just gets thicker from there. Lisa Coleman’s sad, pensive piano—the strongest presence on the album—fuels “Faithful” (“I hear voices/And I can’t stand to be alone/’Cause emptiness is all I’ve ever known”), and Wendy Melvoin’s acoustic guitar creates a mournful, seemingly inescapable web of self-loathing on the title track (“You push me away/Bitterly/My apologies fall on your deaf ears/You curse my name/Bitterly/And now your eyes they look at me/Bitterly”).
Don’t reach for the strychnine just yet. Ndegeocello honors Jimi Hendrix with a cover of “May This Be Love” (“Waterfall/Nothing can harm me at all/My worries seem so very small”), but even on this relatively cheerful track, the singer disobeys the guitar wizard’s original intent and remains hesitant to let herself relax in the arms of another. When she finally relinquishes the warm and fuzzy part of herself, on “Satisfy,” and the music gets as funky as it does on Bitter (at least she busts out the bass), Ndegeocello’s smoked-whiskey vocals are not meant for the man or woman resting on a neighboring pillow. Instead, lines that would look just fine leading off a Penthouse Forum letter—”The rays of the sun greet my body/I’m naked in your world/Come walk me through the garden/And fill me with your love”—are meant for the Man or Woman Upstairs—you know, way, way upstairs.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of reviewing an Ndegeocello show at a small club in Fells Point, Baltimore. Dressed in a tiny white tank top and snug black pants, the musician greeted the crowd with a question: “If I take off my clothes, will you take off yours?” Then another question: “You want to talk about love? Or do you want to talk about fucking? Oh, I see, this is a fucking crowd. Well, I know that feeling, too.” She then proceeded to spank out sweat-streaked takes on “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” “I’m Diggin’ You (Like an Old Soul Record),” and some two hours’ worth of rock, rap, funk, hiphop, soul, and jazz. It was one of those rare assignments where I forgot about the pen and paper in my hands and got sucked in by the moment.
A few weeks ago, Ndegeocello shared the stage with her rockin’ sisters in music at the annual Lilith Fair stop at Merriweather Post Pavilion. But in lieu of breaking out the bass and freeing up her funkified band—and subsequently sticking it to the young, flirty Dixie Chicks or making Chrissie Hynde look like the guitar-granny that she is—Ndegeocello opted to work out her Bitter feelings onstage. Instead of insisting on being the red-hot core of the show, Ndegeocello became the prime pee break. And that’s a shame. There was a blissful time not too long ago when this soul-funk mistress would have teased the crowd, rocked the crowd, seduced the crowd—and no doubt threatened to fuck a few boyfriends in the process. CP