What does it really mean anymore, for today's rap and R&B; artists, to "keep it real"? There's nothing "real" about the designer duds, Bentleys and $200 bottles of Cristal champagne depicted in video after video from many of black music's biggest stars, unless we're talking about a universal street-level fantasy of the good life.
Though the recent neo-soul movement represented by the likes of Alicia Keyes, Jill Scott and India.Arie has seen things shifting in a more reflective direction, this, too, presents only a prescribed set of feelings for the black community. If keeping it real means stepping outside of these forms, there was a talent who boldly expressed her real self -- wearing her heart on her sleeve -- long before these newcomers.
Meshell Ndegeocello has been writing and recording raw, extremely personal, and decidedly outsider music with a funky, jazzy bounce for nearly a decade. It's won her loads of critical acclaim and a legion of loyal fans, but unlike Keyes, Scott or India.Arie, the D.C.-bred singer-bassist (whose last name means "free like a bird" in Swahili) has never tried to be a video diva -- or even a hit maker, for that matter.
With this summer's release, "Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape," the petite, boyishly exotic musician continues to buck pop-star convention with her most eclectic -- and quite possibly most provocative -- collection of songs. It's a tribute to her label, Madonna's Maverick Recording Co., that Ndegeocello has never had to abandon her highly spiritual, often political, sometimes overtly sexual style.
On her Grammy-nominated debut, 1993's "Plantation Lullabies," Ndegeocello scored a moderate hit with the infidelity anthem, "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," and raised even more eyebrows with her tragic homophobia tale, off her 1996 follow-up, "Peace Beyond Passion." Her third album, 1999's "Bitter," was mostly filled with sensual love songs, with the question of monogamy once again a prominent theme on cuts such as "Faithful" and "Grace."
Though her sultrier vamps don't always address her partner's sex, Ndegeocello has never been secretive about her personal life. She lives with her girlfriend and Ndegeocello's preteen son (by a previous relationship) in Northern California.
"My responsibility is simply to be myself, to express myself as sincerely as possible, and to be funky," says Ndegeocello, brushing off the details that really differentiate her work from that of her contemporaries. "I think that search for balance would be there regardless of the gender of my partner. To think otherwise would be to believe there is such thing as a 'gay song,' which is ridiculous. Until a song a) has a gender, b) is capable of being in a relationship or having sex, or c) can be beaten to death for who it loves, let's not talk about songs being gay."
While many of Ndegeocello's groove-filled jams provide the perfect backdrop for between-the-sheets interludes, "Cookie's" societal explorations end up being its most stimulating ones.
The disc's buoyant opening cut features orations about human rights and property rights, and considers the futility of renaming streets after black political figures when nothing is done to improve the neighborhoods those streets are in.
"Hot Night" is built around snippets of an Angela Davis speech about equality and embellished with verses by revered, socially conscious rapper Talib Kweli. "God.Fear.Money" is the kind of funk-inspired groover for which Ndegeocello is best known, this one focusing on the trappings and temptations of today's "Total Request Live"-driven music business. Ndegeocello has a message to spread, and no one is immune to her scrutiny -- not even herself.
"It's about critiquing the music industry, programmed radio, and my own participation in that industry, " she explains. "I don't believe in pointing fingers in one direction."
Indeed, "Cookie's" examination of what Ndegeocello calls "formulaic music production and radio formats" even contains an ironic inside joke in the form of a raucous remix: "Pocketbook," produced by Missy Elliot and featuring rappers Redman and Tweet.
"The remix is a formula -- get a platinum-selling producer and a platinum-selling rapper, throw it together, and boom: radio play, which is what is necessary in today's market to get my record heard," says Ndegeocello. "I put myself in the art piece in order to have the right to critique the art piece."
Though "Pocketbook" pumps up the rap attack to a new level, Ndegeocello's music has always had a hip-hop flavor, whether she's using her almost smooth-jazz vocal style or barking out brash rants. But she considers herself a bassist first and foremost (she's played with a variety of artists, from John Cougar Mellencamp to Alanis Morissette), and her intricate, emotive instrumentation elevates her hip-hop impulse to a unique, technical funk unlike any contemporary performer, especially in a live setting.
Playing with the same band for eight years now, Ndegeocello has an obvious comfort zone on stage, which gives her the freedom to experiment and take her older material in new directions. The group never does the same set twice and often meanders through improvisational hills and valleys, challenging one another through jams that work very much like those of a jazz combo.
"Our goal every night is to sound better than the record and to bring back the art of live music to the people," says Ndegeocello. "The other day, somebody told me they made all three of their children listen to my music -- that's better than any award I've ever won. If the music inspires love and a human experience, then that's what it's all about.
"Its hard to not have the same financial success and therefore artistic space that others have by virtue of how well they have played the game, but I know that everything I do have, I've earned."
Meshell Ndegeocello live
Where: Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana.
When: 8 tonight.
Contact: (714) 957-0600.
Where: Wiltern Theater, 3790 Wilshire Blvd.
When: 9 p.m. Friday.
Cost: $29.50 and $35.
Contact: (213) 380-5005.