MeShell Ndegéocello: Bitter (1999)


Truth in packaging.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1996 singer/bassist/composer MeShell Ndegéocello released her second recording, the funky and soulful Peace Beyond Passion. Adding to her repertoire of romance tunes were songs about racism, religion and homophobia — just enough food for thought for commercial radio to drop her from playlists. Three years later she returned with all-new reasons for radio silence, the wounded Bitter.

Raw as a salted wound, Bitter is the fresh grave of a dead romance; the sounds that come out of your mouth after you’re all cried out. Gone are the rubbery bass lines and synthetic articulations, replaced with acoustic instruments played at speed of melting ice.

Her voice remains a smoky hush but now blackened with ash. Pleading with vulnerability, her empathic grief extends to every song, every tone, but never becoming pitiful. In the measured “Fool of Me”, her anguish is so deep perhaps the brushed drums are the only thing keeping her from falling to pieces.

“Beautiful” is even more fragile, revealing the intimate talk between lovers that we probably shouldn’t be hearing:

such pretty hair
may I kiss you
may I kiss you there
so beautiful you are
so beautiful

don’t move
you feel
so good to me
tell me in my ear


Even the instrumentals offer no solace. The casket-black beats of “Adam” anchor the weeping violins, while the plucked strings of “Eve” sound lost in a void of displacement.

The faster tracks sparkle with restrained tension. The pastoral regalness of “Satisfy” is a woodsy, forest dream. “Wasted Time” is a sparse skeleton dance of the burnt-out, with a tasty dehydrated slide guitar.

Ndegéocello also reinterprets Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” as a quasi-East Indian raga that hovers and darts into space music. Within the confines of the album this zigzag of styles is intoxicating, but outside the album….

THE FALLOUT: Named “Album of the Year” by many journalists, Bitter infuriated fans who wanted the funkier MeShell back, and it tanked. Ndegéocello revisited her approach again in 2005 with the release of the jazzy and challenging The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance Of The Infidel.

Bitter is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A fierce emotional letter-bomb, Bitter triumphantly reconstructs the particles of heartbreak into a new, hopeful organism.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Good stuff from Bad Brains.

Richard Pryor: ‘Craps’ (After Hours) (1971)


When this came out “Green Acres” went off the air. Coincidence?

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: As I lament the premature loss of “Chappelle’s Show”, I have to remind myself how lucky we all are that “Chappelle’s Show” existed at all. Until the late 1960s television comedy was squeaky-clean and heavily censored. If you wanted edgy humor you had to hunt for it at out-of-the-way nightspots. And by edgy I mean “dirty”, because hardly anyone was using comedy as a platform for social commentary. Richard Pryor was the first comedian to destroy these barriers, and he did it with his 1971 album ‘Craps’ (After Hours).

Pryor had a decent career as a clean-cut joke-telling Bill Cosby-type of comedian, a fake persona that led him to an on-stage nervous breakdown. The civil rights and free speech movements radically affected his way of thinking, speaking and presenting himself, and after several years of dwelling in the underground fringes he re-emerged on the comedy scene as streetwise, truthful storyteller.

Pryor would now discuss whatever was on his mind – religion, politics, sex, racism – everything you weren’t supposed to talk about in public. Comparing Black people to White people? He did it first. Using the word “nigger” on stage? He did it first. Talking openly about Black life with a non-Black audience? Absolutely the first.

Where he used to perform impressions of celebrities he now performed impressions of people he knew from his childhood, many of whom were pimps and whores, thieves and junkies. But he gave them all a clear humanity, and they all seemed like people we might know.

He told miniature plays, complete with sound effects and multiple characters. He used the language of real people, and real people curse, and fight, and take drugs, and get themselves into absurd situations and try to laugh their way out of it. By doing this he freed his audience to think and say anything they wanted, and he performed this feat without telling one joke. Yet it’s some of the funniest material ever recorded.

One of the most interesting sounds on this album is the laughter. It rushes forth like tidal waves escaped from its owners. It says “I can’t believe he said that! Damn that was funny! Say some more!” It’s awkward, moist, and quite possibly the sound of a permanently altered mind.

THE FALLOUT: Released on a small label, ‘Craps’ (After Hours) was a cult hit, but Pryor didn’t become widely known until his next album, the jovially titled That Nigger’s Crazy. From 1974 on, Richard Pryor became the undisputed king of comedy.

‘Craps’ can be found in its entirety on Pryor’s Evolution/Revolution compilation, available from Amazon, and you can sample tracks here:

So much of Pryor’s humor and style has been absorbed into the culture, in both comedy and music (imagine hip-hop without his influence), that ‘Craps’ (After Hours) almost sounds quaint and standard by comparison.


See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: What are you thankful for?

Shuggie Otis: Freedom Flight (1971)


What did you do when you were eighteen?

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: If you were the son of R&B great Johnny Otis, you were releasing your third album. As a kid Shuggie Otis spent years playing guitar in his father’s band, receiving an enviable musical education. His previous album, 1970’s Here Comes Shuggie Otis, was a charming blues entry but Freedom Flight was something else entirely.

Using the blues as a starting point, Otis effortlessly blended California’s folk, funk and orchestral pop genres into a unified theory of music, composing and arranging and performing it nearly by himself. At freakin’ eighteen.

Otis is a master guitarist, and his rippling fretwork buzzsaws through “Ice Cold Daydream” like hail on a windshield. His gentle, sunny voice is a mellow counterpoint to the aggressiveness of the track.

Well-known through its smoothed-out interpretation by The Brothers Johnson, “Strawberry Letter 23” is a gorgeous masterwork of spacey textures and evocative lyrics:

In the garden, I see
West purple shower bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins
Dressed in green

Pretty music I hear
So happy and loud
Blue flowers echo
From a cherry cloud

Named for his desire to receive his girlfriends’ next strawberry-scented letter, this original version’s fragility is a revelation. The bells and “ooh ooh ooh ooh-oohs” all are present but its’ heartfeltness adds a tension missing from the more famous version.

“Sweet Thang” features him playing barroom piano and western slide guitar in one ear and churchified organ in the othe rear, resulting in the effect of having an angel and the devil standing on your shoulders, chatting away.

“Freedom Flight” is a rumbling and purring lullaby of sweet strings, chiming guitar and echoey sax. It’s grace and restraint allows it to command thirteen minutes without succumbing to tediousness.

The overall mood is wonderfully unpretentious. He seems to have no idea how dramatically groundbreaking his music is, he’s just a kid having fun.

THE FALLOUT: Although the album got props from other West Coast artists, it was received by the public with all the joy of a tax audit, and found no takers. Three years later Otis released his last album, the brilliant and equally genre-mining Inspiration Information, which only found an audience after its 2001 re-release.

During a concurrent high-profile comeback tour, Otis’ inability to perform a complete or coherent song with his band, night after night, was the first public inkling that the unfulfilled prodigy within him had taken a dark turn.

Freedom Flight is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Beating both Prince’s and Stevie Wonder’s one-man show by both personal age and recording date, Shuggie Otis’ Freedom Flight is a genre without a name, an album without a time, and a voice without a future.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: The first time Richard Pryor was on fire.

Saul Williams: Saul Williams (2004)


Grippo on another level.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 2001 New York slam-poet Saul Williams released his first album Amethyst Rock Star, the result of a difficult, label-controlled recording process. His unhappiness led him to kick his label to the curb and record his follow up on his own, the self-representative Saul Williams.

Wielding his flexible voice like a Swiss Army knife, Williams inhabits his energetic poems with an endless range of vocal styles – rapping, reciting, singing, shouting – while emoting his pet themes of self-awareness and hip-hop stagnation.

The xenophobic “Talk to Strangers” features unsettlingly icy piano from Serj Tankian (the lead singer of System Of A Down), its ballet grace compounding the paranoid confessional.

“Grippo”, Williams’ name for the song’s industrial punk-hop style, was written after attending a paradigm-shifting concert by white rappers. “So substitute the anger and oppression/ With the guilt and depression/ And its yours.” Stuck together like Brooklyn traffic, the greasy punk vocal dances around the guitars’ car alarm melody.

Hip-hop gets a stern talking-to in the vicious “Telegram”. Old-school flow melts over older-school heavy metal as Williams broadcasts the message:

We are discontinuing our current line of braggadocio,
in light of the current trend in “realness”. (stop).
As an alternative, we will be confiscating weed supplies
and replacing them with magic mushrooms,
in hopes of helping niggas see beyond their reality. (stop).

Williams backs up a truck full of cutting-edge beats and sounds to his prose. “List of Demands (Reparations)” finds him pleading over the vibration of massive turbines, and the distorted, dry, pasta crunch drums of “African Student Movement” charmingly unifies the rhythms of urban industrial and African township.

The piano jazz of “Black Stacey” is a humorous platform for him to croon and scat painful recollections of childhood racial politics:

I used to use bleaching creme,
’til Madame CJ Walker walked into my dreams.
I dreamt of being white and complimented by you,
but the only shiny black thing that you liked was my shoes….
I was Black Stacey.
the preachers’ son from Haiti
who rhymed a lot and always got
the dance steps at the party.
I was Black Stacey.
you thought it wouldn’t faze me,
but it did
’cause I was just a kid.

Multiple voices, rock solid flow, exciting tunes, a high-profile arts career – what happened to this album?

THE FALLOUT: I looked for Saul Williams in the Rock section of my favorite record store. Finding nothing I then zoomed over to the Spoken Word section, where I found lots of similar albums by poets, although they were all Caucasian. Eventually I found it the Hip-Hop section, after the Westside Connection divider.

Usually an album this diverse would be placed in the Rock section, as it generally serves as a catch-all for departure albums. I wonder how many people looked for it and simply gave up the search.

Saul Williams is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

A propulsive snapshot of his current mental state, Saul Williams is the sound of a free thinker, an alive mind, and hot beats.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Shuggie Otis breaks with convention, and possibly reality.

Public Enemy: Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age (1994)


Biting the hand that feeds.

Purchase this album: Amazon

THE SCENE: In 1992 the much-loved Public Enemy tasted their first cup of Haterade after releasing the concept-free semi-remix album Greatest Misses. Undaunted, they returned in 1994 with the brilliantly bitter Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, a fusillade of finely tuned aggression and progressive noises.

PE focused its rage on the supply chain of the record industry: morally bankrupt record companies, elitist and impotent music journalists, and the audience that supports them both. Or to put it another way, they had a big problem with their own label, critics and you, personally.

Gangsta rap was becoming the genre of choice among hip-hop fans and the labels responded by pumping out more gangsta rap, a product that PE found to be morally toxic to its audience. As keepers of the pro-Black agenda they were certainly not going to start writing songs about “beating bitches down”. (OK, they did write that in “Sophisticated Bitch” but that song was on the first album and that was, like, a long time ago and stuff.)

So had you just stopped purchasing gangsta rap and the culture of consumer crap it represented, they wouldn’t have had to record such R&B diatribes as “Give It Up”. Bad consumer. Stop it.

The utter uselessness of music critics is demonstrated in the hazy mule train of “I Stand Accused”, while PE publicist Harry Allen dissected the utter uselessness of major labels in “Harry Allen’s Interactive Super Highway”. Nine years before Apple’s iTunes Music Store debuted, Allen sharply predicted the legal sale of digital music and how it would empower the creators and destabilize the record industry.

The intensity of these messages is matched with unique sounds, live instrumentation and explosive, challenging rhythms. The eco-warning “Race Against Time” cleverly sloooooows down the beat to make its point. “Aintnuttin Buttersong” laments the propaganda of the “The Star Spangled Banner” while paying homage to Jimi Hendrix’s Vietnam-era interpolation, chaotic guitar included.

Flavor Flav even kicksed in a serious song with a remake of The Last Poets “The White Man’s Got a God Complex”. Flav wrestled the kinetic sparseness with a venom he’d never shown before:

I’m making guns! (Uptown, I’m God!)
I’m making bombs! (Uptown, I’m God!)
I’m making gas! (Uptown, I’m God!)…
Birth control pills! (Uptown, I’m God!)
Told the Indians I discovered them! (Uptown, I’m God!)…

The concept of “discovering Indians” returned with the hovering incendiary metal of “Hitler Day”, which rowdily recasted Columbus Day as a celebration of a 500-year genocide.

Now that’s gangsta.

THE FALLOUT: PE’s label Def Jam were not pleased with the album (shock!) and barely promoted it. Critics were sharply divided, depending if they felt picked on or not. Although “Give it Up” was a minor hit, the audience really, really wanted to keep buying that G-Funk, and Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age stalled.

Public Enemy didn’t record another non-soundtrack album for five years, but when they did they took their own advice. 1999’s There’s A Poison Goin’ On was released on their own label, as an MP3 album.

Muse… is available from Amazon and you can sample tracks here:

Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age is an extremely gutsy and extremely engaging album. Forward-sounding, retro-leaning and wholly unique.

See you next Wednesday.

NEXT WEEK: Saul Williams would like some words with you.