Although Meshell Ndegeocello scored a few hits early in her career, the bassist, singer, and songwriter later opted to concentrate on more challenging material by exploring the politics of race and sex, among other topics. From her 1993 Maverick label debut through her releases of the 2010s for Naïve, she built a discography of recordings that defied classification through progressive mixtures of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and rock. Initially held in regard primarily for her bass playing and bold lyrics, her songwriting, which often examined dark interpersonal issues, was just as exceptional.
Michelle Lynn Johnson, born on August 29, 1968, spent the first few years of her life in Germany. Her father was both a military man and a jazz saxophonist. She relocated with her family to Virginia in the early '70s. As a youngster, Johnson developed an interest in music; during her teenage years, she began to play regularly in the clubs of Washington, D.C., but eventually settled down in New York City after a stint of studying music at Howard University. By this point, she was going by Me'Shell NdegéOcello -- her adopted last name Swahili for "free like a bird." After auditioning for several bands, including Living Colour, NdegéOcello struck out on her own and often performed solo with just a bass, drum machine, and keyboard. In the early '90s, she was one of the first artists signed to Madonna's Warner-affiliated Maverick label.
NdegéOcello's debut album, 1993's Plantation Lullabies, was produced with David Gamson, as well as with André Betts and Bob Power, and involved input from a wide range of musicians, including DJ Premier, Joshua Redman, Bill Summers, Wah-Wah Watson, and David Fiuczynski. An impressive first album, it spawned the hit "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" and received three Grammy nominations. A duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," released a year later, brought her more mainstream attention; it peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Almost three years passed between the release of NdegéOcello's first and second albums, but during the wait, she collaborated with Chaka Khan on the track "Never Miss the Water," and she appeared on movie soundtracks (White Man's Burden, Money Talks) and on such multi-artist releases as Ain't Nuthin' But a She Thing and Lilith Fair, Vol. 3. Peace Beyond Passion finally saw release in 1996, peaked higher on the Billboard 200 (at number 63), and was also nominated for a Best R&B Album Grammy. Its cover of Bill Withers' "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)" topped Billboard's club chart. Produced by Gamson, it featured a longer list of noted associates, including several heard on the debut, as well as Billy Preston, Bennie Maupin, David Torn, Wendy Melvoin, and Paul Riser.
Another three-year break between albums occurred, during which time she collaborated with rapper Queen Pen on the track "Girlfriend." Bitter, for which she was billed as Meshell Ndegéocello, was released in 1999. She took another three-year break and emerged with Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape -- as Meshell Ndegeocello -- in 2002. Comfort Woman followed in 2003 and Dance of the Infidel, a sprawling album made with numerous collaborators from the jazz world, surfaced in 2005. Two years later, her fantastic Decca debut, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, which included guest appearances from Pat Metheny and Oumou Sangare, was released.
Her first pop-related recording in half a decade, 2009's Devil's Halo featured Ndegeocello in a quartet setting. The album also included guest spots from Lisa Germano and Oren Bloedow. Ndegeocello toured the album in opera houses and concert halls across the United States and Europe. In 2011, she partnered with Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry for the album Weather; it was issued on the Naïve label. In 2012, Ndegeocello released Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, a collection of tunes intimately associated with the legendary vocalist and pianist. Comet, Come to Me, another deep set of introspective songs, followed in 2014. During the next few years, she appeared on a wide assortment of recordings by the likes of Terry Lyne Carrington, Chris Connelly, Benji Hughes, Marcus Strickland (whose Nihil Novi she produced), and Ibeyi. She returned as a leader in 2018 with Ventriloquism, for which she reinterpreted formative R&B classics of the '80s and early '90s. ~ Greg Prato & Andy Kellman