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Meshell Ndegeocello covers ’80s, ’90s R&B on ‘Ventriloquism’

Meshell Ndegocello | Charlie Gross Photo

Meshell Ndegeocello’s hauntingly sparse take on Janet Jackson’s “Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)” may be the most telling piece on her newly released covers album “Ventriloquism.” In 11 tracks, the neo-soul poet laureate and accomplished bass player — whose biggest hit oddly is a duet cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night” with John Mellencamp — gives whole new meaning to some of the best R&B works of the ’80s and ’90s. It includes creative interpretations like the dream folk rendition of TLC’s “Waterfalls,” a sexy electro jazz version of Sade’s “Smooth Operator” and equally reverent tributes to Al B. Sure!’s “Nite and Day,” Force MDs’ “Tender Love” and Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer.”

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO

When: 6 p.m. March 24

Where: The Promontory, 5311 South Lake Park Avenue West

Tickets: $28-$58

Info: promontorychicago.com

When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. March 26

Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston

Tickets: $28-$75

Info: ticketweb.com

But it’s the apocalyptic, robotic twist on Jackson’s soft ballad, about time moving too fast, that lays Ndegeocello’s cards on the table for the inspiration for the latest release, which includes her longtime band collaborators Chris Bruce on guitar, Abraham Rounds on drums and co-producer Jebin Bruni on keys.

“To be honest, my father passed away and during that time I would go back to my childhood home [in Washington, D.C.], and found that the radio station still played songs from that period of time,” she recalls. “I personally find music to be such a time machine and it seemed to be a pleasant feeling to go back, especially since we are living in such a weird time right now. I thought other people might enjoy that nostalgia too.”

Part of the album’s proceeds will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union. “I’ve always given to them. As a person of color the organization really means a lot to me,” she says, “and I hope they are there for me if I ever need them.”

This is not Ndegeocello’s first foray into cover material — the singer-songwriter previously released the album “Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone” in 2012 — yet “Ventriloquism” seems more personal, borrowing from some of her heroes and paying homage to those long gone.

You can feel the palpitations of her broken heart on “Sometimes It Snows In April,” an emotive Prince track that talks of death and reunions in the great beyond. Ironically, Ndegeocello says she learned of her father and Prince’s death in the same way — sitting on a train, heading to tour.

“The whole reason I play music is because of Prince. I remember hearing those first records; they were so inspiring,” she says, also remembering how much her parents disdained her personal favorite, the 1980 sexual opus “Dirty Mind,” which was released when she was 12. “Yeah, that was a hard one to explain to them. I mean, he has on hot pants on the cover.”

When Ndegeocello was first starting out in the early ’90s she had the opportunity to sign to Prince’s Paisley Park Records, but turned it down to become one of the first signees to Madonna’s Maverick label. Ndegeocello also tried out to be the bassist in Living Colour but was turned down.

“Every one pointed out that the people that work with Prince sound like Prince, and my intuition told me no,” she says. “I also met him a few times, and he and I did not jell. It’s weird to have someone as a hero and have that kind of relationship, but I have a very strong personality and it’s not for everyone.” Prince would tell the Los Angeles Times in 1996 about his “mutual admiration society” for Ndegeocello, saying, “When she picks up an instrument. … Musicians, when they really communicate, don’t have to talk. They just play.”

Through her relationship with Maverick, Ndegeocello was able to link up with David Gamson who produced her phenomenal first two albums, including the debut record “Plantation Lullabies” in 1993, which explored topics of gender politics, race and sexuality and which many critics still regard as the birth of the neo-soul movement thanks to songs like the landmark spoken-word funk jive of “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).”

“Plantation Lullabies” turns 25 this year, though Ndegeocello isn’t sure what she might do to mark the occasion, if anything. “I’m trying to learn older material and trying to get it to sound sincere. And it’s hard,” she admits. “I don’t think my music is timeless, to critique my own self. Also, do you listen to that record? I was such an a–hole. It’s funny because my child, who’s 16, played me the SZA record, and I love her, but sometimes lyrically I think this is too much, man. And then I go back and listen to ‘Boyfriend’ and I’m like ohhhh. Who’s a big old hypocrite?,” Ndegeocello says, laughing. She also recently made headlines for calling another R&B contemporary, Bruno Mars, “karaoke.”

In the 25 years since “Boyfriend,” she says, “I think I’ve changed my ability to perhaps express myself with a bit more clarity as a lyricist, and I hope I’m a much more mature person with a better understanding of the world, but it’s complicated.”

Selena Fragassi is a Chicago-based freelance writer.