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Better by the Pound

Taking a Bite Out of Cookie with Me'shell Ndegeocello

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 7/24/2002

Even when she's silent, Me'shell Ndegeocello is constantly bobbing to an unknown beat she has going on inside her famously bald head. Compact and husky-voiced, the 32-year-old bassist/singer has her down-home down. She slaps your leg when making a point, grows gnomically silent for a moment before unleashing an especially tart put-down, and offers her opinions with disarming frankness and the sense that she's still amazed at just how dumb people can be.

Take Fashion Week, the New York clothing industry's annual celebration of itself. Last year, Ndegeocello, who had recently finished recording her excellent fourth album, the much-delayed Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (Maverick), came to New York to perform with the Roots at a party sponsored by Levi's. She had just arrived at Bryant Park Hotel on the morning of Sept. 11 when the first plane hit the Twin Towers.

"I saw ignorance I didn't need to see," she recalls over a sushi lunch. "I saw motherfuckers in the hotel going, 'What, we don't get to show our clothes today?' A young girl from a famous family was on the phone going, 'You've got to call my dad, he's at a ski resort in Aspen, he needs to send a helicopter. Just land it on the hotel and get me out of here. I cannot be stranded in New York.' It's like, 'That's why they're bombing us, 'cause motherfuckers act like you do.'"

Cookie was finished long before Sept. 11, but in some ways the album's more explicitly opinionated sentiments fit in with the climate. The album opens with the searing "Dead Nigga Blvd. (Pt. 1)," which takes to task both government indifference to the suffering of black America and blacks who refuse to take responsibility for themselves: "No longer do I blame white folks for the way that things be/ 'Cause niggas need to redefine what it means to be free." "God.Fear.Money" opines, "I was waiting for the revolution/ Till I found out it was contingent on some corporate sponsorship." "Hot Night," which features Brooklyn hip-hop MC Talib Kweli, threads sound bites of Angela Davis discussing her socialist beliefs through a salsa-inflected horn line. Its refrain: "Let's talk about the sign of the times/ Politics, and the plight/ Of a revolutionary soul singer." Similarly, "Akel Dama (Field of Blood)" mixes Ndegeocello's musings with spoken-word snippets by jazz griot Gil Scott-Heron and poets Countee Cullen and Etheridge Knight.

This is hardly the first time Ndegeocello has expressed herself on such subjects, as fans of 1993's Plantation Lullabies and 1996's Peace Beyond Passion are aware. The bulk of Cookie, though, explores the political inside the personal. It isn't as raw as 1999's mostly acoustic Bitter. There's more perspective here, and a healthy dose of the cutting humor she made her name on, particularly on "Barry Farms," which casts the singer as the sometime lover of a straight girl experimenting with her identity: "Can you love me without shame?/ You only want me for one thing/ But you can teach your boy to do that." With its G-funk organ and immediate groove, it's the kind of song that screams "instant hit single"--in an alternate universe where such a subject is sung about on the radio.

What is on the radio instead is a bonus remix tacked onto the album nearly a year after its completion. In its original incarnation, "Pocketbook" is a straight-up declaration of lust fronted by by a delicious stutter-step groove that evokes, like much of the album's best material, the Sly Stone of There's a Riot Goin' On. (If you think it also resembles D'Angelo's Voodoo, that's OK too--just keep in mind that Ndegeocello was exploring this sound first.) It's not the kind of song that really needs a Rockwilder remix featuring Missy Elliott, Tweet, and Redman. But that's what it gets, and that's what you'll hear on the air.

Not that the remix is anything to be ashamed of; Ndegeocello has been falling through commercial cracks for years. "I'm just looked at as the angry, bald, black dyke, and there's more to [me] than that," she says. And despite the consistency of her albums, she's still best known for her 1993 duet with John Mellencamp on a remake of Van Morrison's "Wild Night." So it's nice to see her triumph over marketing vagaries. Still, as with everything, she's realistic about the situation.

"I feel that people [in marketing] want Blink-182," she says. "You know, it's sad, because they want Sum-41, they want to make Tony Hawk music. They want the soundtrack to The Matrix. They're on some instant cashola. And it's very much catering to young, white America. I'd love for young, white America to get into me--that'd be great! But all I can do is be honest; I mean, to me, I'm like the funk version of System of a Down. I love their music. And they're dealing with their cultural shit too, which is what I'm doing."

Cookie's high point comes midway through, on the astounding ballad "Trust," whose tense, ultraminimal arrangement balances a lonesome wah-wah guitar, plinking piano, and see-through strings over a slow-crawl beat. Ndegeocello and Caron Wheeler (best known as the singer of Soul II Soul's early hits "Keep on Movin'" and "Back to Life") entwine their voices around each other like tantric bed mates, before longtime Ndegeocello guitarist Allen Cato breaks the humidity with a soul-wrenching guitar solo that suggests Prince in purgatory.

Stylistically, "Trust" is the closest Cookie gets to Bitter. Ndegeocello says that album--something of a litmus test for her fans, the dividing line between the casual and the committed--was inspired by her participation in what she calls "the women-on-the-rag tour," Lilith Fair.

"I'd see Jewel and be like, 'Jesus, you can get up there and strum, and they'll think you're a genius,'" she says. "There was a lot of menstrual hype going on."

Does she mean the old saw that when women tour together their monthly cycles line up with one another? "We would never talk about it because we tried not to be hippie," she says. "And all I did was stare at Sheryl Crow's body all day long. 'Cause I was the only one who was like, 'I'm gay and I like it, and [if] y'all don't like it, then whatever.' But it's just fun to play music. It can be hard to connect with other women musicians because they get all weirded out, like there can only be one diva in the place. I'm just like, 'I'll take a bite out of your ass on the stage. Otherwise, I just want to be a good person.'"

Me'shell Ndegeocello plays the Decker Stage at Artscape July 27 at 7:30 p.m. For a full schedule of Artscape musical events, see page 30.

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