Though I was familiar with her funky single “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” I must admit that I didn’t really give Meshell Ndegeocello‘s 1993 debut album Plantation Lullabies a truly fair listen until nine years after its release, when a college friend put it on while she burned nag champa incense in her small apartment (yes, I was one of those people during my college years). But after that re-listen, I wondered why I hadn’t latched on to the album so much sooner. Almost counter-programming to a lot of the R&B and hip hop that was abundant during the time, Plantation Lullabies was a near perfect opening salvo for an artist who defied conventions out of the gate with her bass playing, bald head and fondness of menswear. Meshell melded old and new school influences, genres and the personal and political so effortlessly that, even nearly 10 years after the fact, I had to stand up and take notice.
Of course, we can’t truly talk about Plantation Lullabies without first discussing “If That’s Your Boyfriend” the album’s breakout hit. The hip hop and funk drenched cut was how most were introduced to Meshell, though it wasn’t the album’s first single. The song’s brazen lyrics, which featured Meshell unabashedly bragging about snatching a woman’s man, caused a bit of stir, especially when coupled with the bi-sexual singer’s androgynous appearance in the song’s video. That stir, however, couldn’t deter the single’s success. It peaked at No. 73 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but its crossover appeal saw it place on the Hot Rap Singles, R&B/Hip Hop Singles and Rhythmic Top 40 charts while remixes of the song hit the Top 20 of the Dance charts. The video also netted her MTV Video Music Awards nods for Best New Artist and Best Female Video.
Interestingly enough, while elements of “If That’s Your Boyfriend” are found throughout the album, it’s actually the only song like it on the set. The rest is mellower and less aggressive — though still just as urgent. In fact, it would be easy to argue that Meshell was neo-soul before the genre had a name and following (she and this album are often credited with kicking off the movement that would birth a whole new generation of soul stars). Songs like “I’m Diggin’ You – Like An Old Soul Record” and lead single “Dred Loc” are proof of this. Her style of blending spoken and sung verses over jazz, hip hop and R&B textures speak to some of the hallmarks of the movement that was to come.
And then you have the more socially conscious tracks that mingle just fine with the sensual cuts. Funk throwback “Shoot’n Up And Gett’n High” touches on drug use and the despair of inner city life while the jazzy “Step Into the Projects” shows the beauty of it while also dealing a bit with the plight of young Black men. The most incendiary track, however, is “Soul On Ice,” where Meshell questions the motives of brothas who exclusively choose white women over sistas. Though I’m sure the sentiment would be slightly altered if this song were recorded today, it’s message is still echoed in the various news stories questioning why there are so many successful, smart and single black women out there looking for viable black men to marry.
But, for the most part, Plantation Lullabies was all about the romantic and the sensual. Meshell’s ruminations ranged from the simple (“Picture Show,” “Call Me,” “Dred Loc”) to the much more emotionally complex (“Sweet Love,” “Two Lonely Hearts – On The Subway”). However, the true heart of the album is probably the longing of “Outside Your Door.” Vulnerable and raw, the track captured the essence of begging the one that got away for another chance. Eventually, the track was released as the set’s final single, with it peaking at No. 41 on the Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles chart. However, the track later gained notoriety when crooner Brian McKnight released his hit single “Anytime” in 1998. The song contained a piano riff that was eerily similar to “Outside Your Door” and the similarity has remained a bone of contention between the two ever since. Still, despite its low peak position and the “Anytime” controversy, the song gained a second life as a Quiet Storm staple and still finds new audiences to this very day.
Though she’s never had another solo single other than “If That’s Your Boyfriend” ever enter Billboard’s Hot 100 (her collaboration with John Cougar Mellencamp, 1994’s “Wild Night” was wildly successful and peaked at No. 3 on the chart), Meshell went on from Plantation Lullabies to build a very enviable career. In the 20 years since, she’s been nominated for 10 GRAMMY Awards, released nine other albums and one EP and has become a respected musician and go-to bass player for many artists throughout the industry. She’s also blazed trails as one of the first openly LGBTQ artists of color — her Plantation Lullabies follow-up Peace Beyond Passion even addresses many of the issues faced by the community. Still, while not even my favorite Meshell album (that honor goes to 1999’s Bitter), Plantation Lullabies will always hold a special place in my heart as it always takes me back to that 19-year-old me sitting on my friend’s floor, the smell of nag champa slowly filling my nostrils, and my mind being blown that music could be so heartfelt, so honest and so thought provoking.