Me'Shell Ndegeocello's debut album twists and turns through so many genres - R&B, pop, jazz, hip-hop - that it's hard to put a finger on just where she wants to take its 13 songs. That she also spins conventional racial and sexual identity here makes Plantation Lullabies an occasionally overwhelming - as well as a vibrantly sophisticated - listen. Ndegeocello defies labels throughout, tagging her slinking and crawling songs with a rubbery flow that's just as rooted in '70s funky soul as it is in '90s hip-hop culture. The best songs here - "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," "Dred Loc," and "Outside Your Door" - work their way into their grooves with a seamless, and almost uniform, bounce. It can be a bit derivative (for all of Ndegeocello's genre-crossing, she always seems to go back to the same musical blueprint), but most of the time it's just about as boundary-busting and as affecting as '90s R&B gets.
All Music Guide
Certain albums blast through and, if not exactly change everything in the long term, create a feeling that everything that went before is tremendously old hat. Although the effects of Plantation Lullabies may not have been particularly durable, the power of the former Mary Johnson's debut is undeniable, a decade-and-a-half after its release.
This was an incredibly confident, strident recording, by one of the first signings to Madonna's Maverick label. Bisexual, shaven-headed, witty, feminist and soulful, NdegeOcello creates her own universe within the 13 tracks here. Playing most of the instruments herself, she used a free-form variety of music styles and created some genuinely original music.
Largely co-produced by Scritti Politti multi-instrumentalist David Gamson, alongside Madonna cohort Andre Betts, the album feels like a complete, cohesive work. The funk-jazz-hip-hop hybrid of I'm Diggin' You (Like An Old Soul Record) celebrates the glory of R&B's past, while making something sound at once contemporary. Lead single If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night) was saucy, knowing, putting her firmly in control.
Call Me and Sweet Love take fairly conventional songs and subjects and add an extra dimension; often through NdegeOcello's raps. Unlike most spoken passages added to records in the 90s, these sound perfectly fluid and organic.
Ballad Outside Your Door has a beautiful late night feel, its rhythm box introduction referencing Sly Stone and Timmy Thomas; Picture Show captures the simple thrill of love convincingly: ''the way you eat your cereal is so cute, reading Shakespeare in our birthday suits''.
Plantation Lullabies has been credited as being the birth of neo-soul; maybe so. Its generous references to the past make it something that still sounds like the future. What Me'Shell NdegeOcello's debut certainly is is refreshing, funky and free.