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Outsider 101. Teacher: Ndegeocello

Pop music review: At the Whisky, the singer embraces the essence of what it's like to live as a target.

June 20, 1996|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Me'Shell Ndegeocello has the outsider angle covered: She's a woman, she's black, she's bisexual and, on her new album anyway, she's scathingly anti-Christian.

Her anger about the way racial, sexual and philosophical aliens are treated is the engine that drives this multifaceted musician's remarkable music.

She hinted at her potential with her two career-establishing hits, "I'm Diggin' You (Like an Old Soul Record)" and "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," from her 1993 debut album, "Plantation Lullabies," and at the Whisky on Tuesday Ndegeocello wrapped up a brief club tour with a show that soared with confidence and ambition.

In the show and on her album "Peace Beyond Passion," which comes out next week, Ndegeocello aspires to embrace the essence of what it's like to live as a target, to be forced to battle for self-respect and individuality. Accordingly, she details not only the indignities, but also the profundity of the love that she must find in order to survive them.

This dichotomy gives her music an expansive range, and at the Whisky she swung from accusation to flirtation with quick shifts of musical gears. She was sensuous and erotic as she mounted the monumental seduction of "Stay," complete with a list of the old soul records that could serve as a soundtrack. When she addressed Mary Magdalene, it was with a proposal of marriage.

Her controversial current single "Leviticus: Faggot" received an inspired performance. During the encore version of the first album's "Shoot'n Up and Gett'n High," she offered a report on racial conditions that was anything but upbeat, criticizing not only the oppression by whites but also the complacency and materialism of some blacks.

Ndegeocello is also unsparing in her assessment of Christianity. Well, she does spare the Founder, instead attacking his followers for using his words to condemn and enslave. In this context, the strong gospel component of her music assumed an ironic edge.

Along with gospel, Ndegeocello stirs up strong currents of jazz, funk and R&B. She might have the presence and image of a cutting-edge artist, but her musical direction is primarily retrospective, grounded in the classic styles she celebrated in that first hit.

She and her seven musicians executed it with flair Tuesday, evoking everyone from Prince to Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye to the Temptations. Without the strings and horns that warm and deepen the music on the new album, this was a more percussive, rhythm-driven performance, with a spiky but fluid attack.

Technical problems caused a few tentative moments, but nothing that a few political zingers or gorgeous reveries didn't quickly cover.

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