A PASSIONATE PEACE
Recalling the genius of Me’Shell N’Degeocello’s “Peace Beyond Passion”
By Chris Campbell
With her first words on the seminal release Peace Beyond Passion, multi-instrumentalist Me’Shell N’Degeocello set the album’s tone by transporting listeners to a place where Christianity was at odds with individuality with a knowledge and definition of self being what was at stake.
It may have seemed like a blasphemous stab at religion, but it was instead a spiritual journey with a lover’s touch that found N’Degeocello attacking self-hatred, homophobia, racism and judgmentalism.
It was a striking turn from the mirthfulness of her 1993 smash debut Plantation Lullabies, and was a musical reinvention that would become typical for her with each new release.
Born Michelle Johnson in Berlin, Germany to a highly decorated army officer who also happened to play tenor saxophone, and a mother who worked in the health care industry, Johnson grew up in an environment that was equal parts musical and regality.
She attended several presidential inaugurations where her father performed, which sparked an interest in music theory and performance.
Her formative years were also grounded in confusion, not only by the troubled marriage of her parents but also deep-seated feelings of sexual mis-identity as she realized that she was bi-sexual, a revelation that incurred the wrath of her father, a conservative military man with views that were the polar opposite of hers.
Johnson retreated to music as a haven and took up the bass at age 16, performing at local clubs before departing to Howard University to study music history. She soon left for New York to practice her craft and it was during this time that she had a son, named Askia, which prompted both personal introspection and transformation.
Changing her name to Me’Shell and adopting the moniker N’Degeocello, a Swahili phrase for “free like a bird,” she was determined to fully explore the life, pains and feelings of her youth through music.
PLANTATION LULLABIES INTRODUCES A NEW MUSIC GENRE, SETS UP SOPHOMORE RELEASE
In 1993, she began circulating a tape around music industry circles and soon set up a performance showcase that was attended by an executive from pop diva Madonna’s Maverick Records label.
After giving a mesmerizing performance, N’Degeocello was offered a recording deal, which she chose over other labels based on the promise of creative freedom.
Work soon began on a debut solo recording that evolved into Plantation Lullabies, a critical smash, with music pundits lauding her range, emotion and ambition — a radical departure from the contrived studio and radio divas of the time.
Magazines like Rolling Stone declared her “music’s brightest hope.” The release with its acid jazz élan and throwback appeal, was unofficially dubbed neo soul’s first broad release — before the genre’s name would be coined.
With her sophomore release, Peace Beyond Passion, N’Degeocello fulfilled the promise of her first album and offered a far-reaching critique of religious narrow-mindedness that transitioned into a celebration of pure spirituality. It was the sum representation of all her hopes, dreams, fears and questions rolled into an organic mixture of sound, substance and soul.
PEACE BEYOND PASSION: THE TRACK BY TRACK REVIEW
With any Me’Shell N’Degeocello release, there is a depth of nuance in the lyrical construction of each tune, with each refrain and verse touting dual symbolisms and poignant social commentary.
Right out the gate, the record ignited controversy with its lead single, “Leviticus: Faggot,” a pro-tolerance song that detailed the persecution and eventual death of a gay man.
“The Way” was a clever, ironic misnomer that seemed to convey positive religious messages, but in actuality was a song that depicted religious ambivalence.
The tune evoked shades of Prince, who early in his career created a firestorm with his controversial mingling of sex and religion, and employed former Prince guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who added supple sound remnants to moody lyrics such as, “They say you’re the light, the way/I’m so ashamed on bended knees/prayin’ to my pretty white Jesus.”
“Deuteronomy: Niggerman,” saw N’Degeocello offer commentary on how she felt divinity transcended skin color, with her proclamation that she was a “divine ho” and then a “nigga redefined.” The track incorporated keyboard work from the late Billy Preston, as the piano parts shimmered over the somber mood of the track.
“Ecclesiastes: Free My Heart” was a delightful aural effort that alternately shifted from taking Christianity to task for various societal ills, to extracting solace from it — the song moving into the realm of a gentle rhapsody while building its way to a crescendo through Melvoin’s guitar-filled tumult at the song’s climax.
“Mary Magdalene” was a soft rendering reinforced by Melvoin’s guitar work, which leisurely accompanied N’Degeocello’s longing for love with the refrain, “Tell me I’m the only one/I want to marry you.”
“God Shiva” found Melvoin crafting a unique guitar arrangement that complimented N’Degeocello’s now familiar husky voice in the role of spoken word, shining as an instrument of truth and integrity — a touching performance piece and poetic masterwork.
“Who is He and What is He to You?” reimagined the classic Bill Withers tune by giving it a stunning overhaul, casting it in a bisexual light that begged the questions — was the song’s antagonist an unfaithful partner or was it a broader expression of deep seated disappointment with religion? The tune was a stunning invocation of homoerotic suspicion and religious ambivalence.
The album kicked into another gear by exploring matters of the heart with the quiet storm-inflected, deep bass romp of “Stay,” an aching heartfelt track with direct lyrics and percolating melodies that wrapped around N’Degeocello’s pleading refrain: “I want you/I can’t get you off my mind/Ooh you turn me on/stay.”
On “Bittersweet,” N’Degeocello offered one of the most poignant chorus/verse arrangements in recent memory, “You enchant me so my bittersweet flower/Mystery of the sages come into my realm of imagination/Let Me Digest You.”
The album’s closer, “Make Me Wanna Holler,” was a painful lament on societal and family ills that found N’Degeocello questioning whether she could be saved by the same God whose “words were used to enslave me.” The tune sampled “Inner City Blues” and grew into a breathtaking eight-minute instrumental jam to close the album — one of the finest tributes to Marvin Gaye since Teena Marie’s “My Dear Mr. Gaye.”
With a retrospective lens, Peace Beyond Passion proved to be a half-sung/half-spoken word treatise that moved with its own power — much like a Nikki Giovanni poem set to music. The album was a multi-textured ode to a craving for understanding of the world while exploring themes of love and lust set against beautiful layers of pure organic funk.
N’Degeocello would go on to release numerous seminal and timeless albums that continued to push the boundaries of progressive soul music — with a trademark mélange of gutsy expansive thematic arrangements that mixed slinky funk with postmodern hip-hop elements and melodic throwback soul to very great effect.
But more importantly, it signaled the emergence of a genre-defying composer/musician who would have longevity and staying power while becoming one of the more prolific, if not most underrated artisans to grace the world of soul, funk and rock.
Chris Campbell is an author, taste maker, DJ and host of The Progressive Underground, a music show that broadcasts on National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate 101.9 FM WDET and is a correspondent for NPR Music (National Public Radio) penning reviews for its “Songs We Love,” and “Heavy Rotation” columns/segments. His books “The Essential Neo Soul” and “The Essential Neo Soul 2.0” chronicled the history of the progressive modern-day soul music movement. Contact him on Twitter and Instagram at @cambeaux