At the time of release, Me’Shell NdegéOcello was not a complete unknown, but she wasn’t known outside of her Washington, DC circle. She had played bass for years and was known for being a young powerhouse, but she hadn’t yet established herself as a major artist. Considering the work she did, one might argue that she didn’t want to be a major artist but eventually she found herself on Madonna’s then-new Maverick record label. Maverick was partly created to showcase some of Madonna’s interests but primarily to show her as a record label CEO with ten successful years in the music industry. If The Beatles had Apple, Elton John had The Rocket Record Company, The Rolling Stoned had Rolling Stones, and Prince had Paisley Park, then Madonna was ready to show that she had hers. NdegéOcello was one of her early signees.
With Madonna’s name attached to hers, people were not sure what to expect from a female bassist, born Michelle Johnson. Immediately, a female musician might have lead people to wondering if she played jazz. Yes, she did. By the time one finished listening to her debut album, one couldn’t help realize she was so much more, a singer/songwriter/musician who could arguably outshine the co-owner of her label.
One might ask what exactly are Plantation Lullabies? Madonna was signed to Sire, which was a Warner Bros. Records-affiliated label. Maverick was also distributed by Warner Bros. It has been said that the Warner Bros. movie studio plot in Burbank, California was built on land that was originally a plantation. With an artist who is social and political in her music, perhaps it could be said that NdegéOcello was now making music “for the man”, and thus if she was now a slave to a system, then the music she would create would become her lullabies for the plantation, songs to sing in the meantime before she would eventually make her way out.
The album begins with the mellow title track, an instrumental that serves as the album’s introduction to her show, welcoming everyone in, hoping people were firmly seated for what was to come. “I’m Diggin You (Like an Old Soul Record)” begins incredibly funky and the bass immediately jumps out. “Damn, this is some funky shit” I said, and then she spoke by telling the listener to “just sit back and relax, listen to an 8-track”. Immediately she was telling you what kind of comfortable vibe her album wanted to create. This was an album that was meant to listen to, to allow the metaphorical 8-track tape to take its time, a format that initially was made without being able to fast forward (or rewind) the tape. Once you popped it in, you had to listen to it from start to finish, and your only way of moving around the album was clicking the button to go between tracks 1 to 4. Lyrically, she touches on how the world was different when people were singing not as a means to be free, but because it was normal to feel free, because “love brought us all together”. It referenced the Black Power movement, but also a different mentality, which now became sentimentality. It was now the 90’s, and now love seems to have been replaced by heavy drug usage:
“Now brothers be base-in
Running from the beat-down cops that be chasin’
Running out of time, running out of patience
In this war of the conscious mind”
These Lullabies were not going to be about Little Jack Horner putting his thumb in a pie to find a plum.
If “”I’m Diggin You (Like an Old Soul Record)” was more spoken word in feel, it couldn’t be denied that “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” was a rap song about her finding a man that she wants, and if that man is attached to someone else, it is not her problem. She wants what she wants and she’ll get it. If it comes to her (or looking for her), even better. The song was released as Plantation Lullabies‘ second single and its black & white video would receive a healthy amount of MTV and BET rotation in late 1993/early 1994, which would help give her a great amount of exposure. The song was also notable for featuring two samples within the mix (the “hey” which opens the song and the “oooh!” stabs heard before the first verse drops), which was distinctively different from the funkiness of “I’m Diggin You (Like an Old Soul Record)”, as if it was dipping into her own soul record collection to find influences.
The drug reference made in “I’m Diggin You (Like an Old Soul Record)” was explored in full with “Shoot’n Up and Gett’n High”, but one could say is the drug in question heroin, or the type of mental and social injections that turn some of us into slaves of/for ourselves:
“And damn I thought I was shootin’up Africa in my veins
White man voodoo slow my brain the while man fights wars and enslaves
All in God’s name
What ya trying to achieve with your suntan lotion
You wanna keep me down keep me down
Revolution against this racist institution
The white man shall forever sleep with one eye open
Criticize, set aside
Livin’ in the midst of genocide I hear voices voices are what I hear
Uprise would you die for your right”
If Curtis Mayfield recorded an album about a man named John Shaft who was trying to make his community better by getting rid of the pusher man, NdegéOcello showed that 20 years later, people are still struggling and “trying to get over”, and the pain still hurts. The track marks were becoming more difficult to hide.
“Dred Loc” was the first single released off of Planatation Lullabies and was my formal introduction to NdegéOcello when the song found a home on BET’s Video Soul and Video Vibrations. The song was about love, or more specifically, black love, with her voice casually saying “let me run my fingers through your dreadlocks and rub your body down”. The song was soothing, moving, and grooving from start to finish, and her bass riffs throughout showed this was very much a personal slow jam, or had the potential to become one.
From an untitled interlude towards the deepness of love, “Step Into The Projects” has her singing about looking for someone to find an affection that’s more than just the physical, although the darkness of ones skin also equates to the darkness of the mind that is split between dealing with the true darkness of the world and a sensibility that is unique to ones own darkness as people are “groovin’, love to hear the brothers signify sisters with their head held high”. No need to think about a world looking at you for who you are based on what they think you are, when being dark and lovely becomes much more of a statement than just a casual beauty product.
Soul On Ice is a book written by Eldridge Cleaver and published in 1968, the year of NdegéOcello’s birth. In this song, she explores what some might do to try to fit in with another culture just to get by or simply pass, and sometimes that also touches on what some within their own culture will do to validate what it means to be what they feel it means to be what they are. At the time, a number of hip-hop artists were doing songs about “dirt road, white girl”, a way to say “why do you want to look, speak, and dress this way when it’s all cosmetic to you? You can remove the clothing and make-up when you’re home, wipe the dirt away before you go to sleep.” At this point, NdegéOcello throws out boomerangs and she knows exactly who, or perhaps what, her intended target is:
“Creams sad passion deferred dreams
I am a reflection of you
Black and blue pure as the tears of coal-colored children crying for acceptance
You can’t run from yourself
She’s just an illusion
Black love anthems play behind white-skinned affection
New Birth stereophonic Spanish fly let her cry
But you no longer burn for the motherland brown skin
You want blond-haired, blue-eyed soul, Snow White passion without the hot comb”
One can equate that as a lullaby of the plantation, or parallel to what Cleaver was dealing with when he wrote Soul On Ice while in prison, or simply NdegéOcello dealing with what she knew, what she saw, what she experienced, and putting that into something that could have fit in perfectly on the Super Fly soundtrack.
After repeat listens of this album for years, I feel the last five songs are a perfect suite, equal to the Abbey Road suite, Chicago’s “Ballet For A Girl In Buchanon” from Side 2 Chicago II (or even the “Prelude/A.M. Mourning/P.M. Mourning/Memories Of Love” or “It Better End Soon” movements from the same Chicago album), The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away”, or the Beastie Boys’ “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. The songs may not have been done as a suite, and there may not have been a steady stream of consciousness when they were written, recorded, and pieced together for the album, and yet it feels as if she did it that way. The running theme in the last five songs are love and romance, which begins with a request (if not a subtle demand) for a call for a hook-up in “Call Me”:
“Dial the 7 digits, It’s quite simple
I’ll be there in a hurry, Jack be quick Jack be nimble
Call me up when you feel the need to talk
When words aren’t of the essence I’ll soothe you with my presence
A kiss here and there from head to toe
Just call me up when you want more
You can be king for a day
I’ll be your queen, let me treat you that way”
“Outside Your Door” is being on the verge of wanting someone, or telling that special someone that I am within arms reach, you just have to extend your hand to get to me:
“I’d be content to just sit here and talk to you
In my dreams you love me and me only
The way you kiss and hold me
Love is what I search and search to find
But until then I’ll just dream for the meantime”
The song is done as an incredible, soulful and jazzy slow jam, going back and forth between spoken word and vocals, as she sensually caresses her own mind in the hopes that other things may be catered to when that time comes.
“Picture Show” is more umtempo, very much a feel good song where one discovers when the hand is extended, you can share a warm embrace and watch a movie. The fact that she uses a term like “picture show” is very old school, especially in 1993 when most people were no longer using the term to describe a movie or film. Then again, the reference where she sings “we can sit and neck, baby” is a reflection of the mentality she once discussed a few songs earlier, when you can only sit back and relax for so long while listening to 8-tracks. Old school thought, old school mentality, old school feelings”
“In my script there’s a love scene, picture it
Candles with warm apple cider
Sly Stone on the radio
Oh, caress your funky dreads in the candle’s glow
Whisper in my ear
“‘Cause I’m in the mood for love”
I’m just a hopeless romantic
Hopelessly in love with you
“Sweet Love” is another slow jam that I’d like to think she enhances (or used to enhance) in a live setting. The song is about a certain type of desire wanted. While she found herself speaking for the woman who didn’t mind loving anyone she wanted, she now finds herself in sorrow, wanting someone who is in love with someone else.
“Cry my tears by candlelight, I’m just another lonely heart
Here on a lonely night, screams of passions
I call out your name making love to another
Just to ease my pain, will this ever change?
Will you ever feel the same way about me?”
The melody that fades-out the song almost hints at child-like innocence, as if someone is doing hopscotch and discovering what it means to have a first crush, and always feeling that way when a desire is wanted but cannot be fulfilled at this time.
The Lullabies conclude with “Two Lonely Hearts (On the Subway)”. There’s two ways of looking at this five-song suite and how it ends. It may seem as if NdegéOcello found her man and is enjoying everything that it means to be in love, or to simply be. She pleads for that person to extend their hand but by the end of them, it is she who reveals it is her resisting the temptation to simply say hello, yet knows that first word (or words) could lead to some sense of freedom, if only for a morning, afternoon, or evening. It is then she reveals that as she boards the train to head back home, she is not the only one who feels alone:
“We could read some Ntozake Shange
and I loose myself in the book
I escape to my heavenly tomb
Or we could read the voice
It’s your choice, I just want to get to know you
Your lovely black face
Accompanied by some strictly roots
As we venture, it’s just nice to be near you”
Words expressed, but not heard? Emotions felt, but not spoken externally? As the song gently fades and the instrumental backing moves towards hearing nothing but NdegéOcello playing a slightly mournful-yet-optimistic goodbye, you realize that this was not the lullaby you expected to hear, but are comforted in knowing that as one fades into slumber, there is always that metaphorical promise of a new day, and whatever we’re able to make of it.
The album brought in musicians she had worked with over the years, such as David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, Wah-Wah Watson, Joshua Redman, Geri Allen, and Luis Conté, but when it came to needing a DJ for some scratching on the closing track, she asked DJ Premier to help out with “turntable interpretations”, which helps to enhance the feeling of the “Two Lonely Hearts” by recreating the external sounds of the subway. It sounds gritty and it’s fitting for an album that goes in a number of places throughout a song, sometimes within the same section of a song.
If NdegéOcello herself felt as if she didn’t know how to fit herself in with the rest of the world, what to make of an album that for some may have felt like a confusing array of sounds unsure of how to unite? I always felt the mixture of soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, and spoken word fit perfectly, and that one didn’t have to limit themselves to a constraint, if they allowed themselves to be free.
One of the most notable things about the album was the liner notes, which featured some of her own writings. It also featured a few statements, including one that hit me and I still remember to this day:
“the alternative to hip-hop is silence”
Hip-hop was slowly dividing itself to where one didn’t, couldn’t, or refused to recognize the other, so it seemed to become one group of those who wanted the attention, and the other who simply wanted to be. Could hip-hop welcome in someone like NdegéOcello who could not only rap, but sing and play an instrument? Forget the fact that people like Shock G. and Kwame Holland were already playing instruments in their own music and productions, but the scope of what hip-hop was meant to represent in 1993 was very different than it would be at the dawn of the internet’s first hip-hop communities. Technically, NdegéOcello was an outsider even though hip-hop felt as if it was without rules. Technically, Beck’s “Loser” is a twisted hip-hop song but he could be considered someone who rapped. Or maybe it was a credibility issue, that he could “rap” but no one care call him a rapper.
Regardless, Plantation Lullaby showed what could happen if one chose to go beyond the boundaries of what was established so you could create your own territory, even if that territory made you feel alone and isolated. One means of isolation will eventually lead you to find the promised land, be it within the plantation or not. However, part of the album’s beauty is listening to her struggle through the ways of the plantation and coming to the conclusion that we can make it exist or not, especially when you reach the epiphany of what you really want. It’s the eternal search for a lonely heart so that it’s possible for them to beat as one. That’s a lullaby worth singing about, or in this case, 13 Plantation Lullabies worth singing and remembering.