Music

Meshell Ndegeocello’s Ventriloquism: Blessed are the Cover Songs

Aarik Danielsen

Meshell Ndegeocello delivered the ultimate come-on with her 1993 song “I’m Diggin You (Like an Old Soul Record).” There’s no telling who Ndegeocello was wooing, but 25 years later, that person should feel doubly flattered.

Last month, with Ventriloquism, the R&B veteran revealed which old soul records she’s been digging all these years, as her new album features covers of Prince, Sade, Tina Turner, and more. Ndegeocello is no less than one of our true soul innovators, but Ventriloquism proves she’s something more: a brilliant interpreter of others’ songs. Here Ndegeocello devotes the same depth of feeling and deliberation to others’ material that she invests in her own.

Cover songs are a risky business. In an ideal world, a cover song travels in one of two directions. The simplest route is the most faithful one. No new spin, genre experiment, or leap of faith; all that changes are the time, place, and players. This is a celebration, not a re-creation, its modest endgame that the original song remains in the atmosphere.

A riskier, yet infinitely more rewarding, avenue awaits artists: immerse yourself so deeply in a song that you internalize its rhythms, that it becomes a part of you. When these artists come up for air, they present the song with such unforced intuition it sounds as if they wrote it. Think Dessa’s take on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Goin’ Down.” Or Sturgill Simpson’s interpretation of “In Bloom,” by Nirvana. Or even Dave Matthews Band doing Jimi Hendrix doing Bob Dylan on “All Along the Watchtower.”

Ndegeocello primarily makes the songs on Ventriloquism her own. Producing a deep, unified sound, the common thread no longer is that other artists wrote these songs. Their connection is emotional, almost spiritual. They have one voice. They belong together.

Often, Ndegeocello cools the tempo, strips away the shiniest pop adornments, and dances with the darkness in a composition. Her take on TLC’s smash “Waterfalls,” for instance, sands down the original’s irresistible glide, bringing out its gritter, grainier elements. She opens with rust-colored acoustic guitar and stuttered drums. That guitar evens out and becomes an anchor, bearing the weight of woozy electric licks and an indigo groove. The chilling dread of HIV/AIDS, latent in the original track and ushered into the light by its MTV award-winning clip, receives full hearing here.

With its meandering intro and misty vocals, Ndegeocello’s “Atomic Dog” is more peace circle than party jam, more Grateful Dead than original artist George Clinton. Her version comes across like a series of existential questions, not a block-rocking boast. Minor-chord strings replace shimmering electric piano on a version of Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun).” Ndegeocello turns down the original’s hopefulness, choosing to amplify its wistful edge; she replaces Jackson’s coital cooing and sensual French with a brooding tone.

Cover songs are a risky business.

Ventriloquism reminded me that throughout the Bible, Scripture quotes itself. These aren’t exactly cover versions, since the original artist still controls the microphone. And while the tone might change between passages, the voice is one and the same. Yet these moments are among the most illuminating and exhilarating in the Bible, as we hear motives return and see the greater story come together.

In a scene straight out of a Spaghetti Western, Jesus makes a meal and a gun out of Scripture while squaring off against the devil in the desert. By digging into Isaiah, he exposes the Pharisees as spiritual emperors without a stitch of clothing between them. He also references the prophet in order to make his manifesto manifest. Even when we don’t hear Jesus quote directly from Scripture, we bear witness as he uses it to show off himself as its very point. In the Sermon on the Mount, he cites familiar law to show how far from the spirit of the law we are—and how desperately we need him to fulfill it on our behalf.

Elsewhere, Paul calls all the way back to Genesis to display the beautiful marriage covenant Christ creates with his church; Peter brings our redemption and reason for living in line with Jesus’ ability to trip up the faithless; throughout Hebrews, Jesus’ posture, priesthood, and purpose are made clear through Old Testament quotes.

And on and on and on—the song remains the same, but we hear something new in it each time. Like a great cover song, these citations honor the original, placing it in a context that shows off its innate greatness. The source material becomes three-dimensional as we hear it in new ways, at moments that extract even more of its meaning. Our faith grows, and our ears are tuned to connect original passages with their reimagined counterparts.

Blessed are the cover songs, then, for they help us hear in a different way. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Topics: Music