Meshell Ndegeocello paying tribute to the late Nina Simone makes perfect sense. Both battled to establish themselves on their own inconvenient terms: A pair of iconoclastic black female musicians, strong-willed but sensitive, disdainful of genre boundaries, and soulful to the core. It also makes sense that one of the ways Pour Une Âme Souveraine (translated as “For A Sovereign Soul”) would honor Simone is by often confounding expectations in its song choices and treatments. The hallowed Leonard Cohen ballad, “Suzanne” becomes a brisk shuffle. With guest artist Toshi Reagon on board, the somber standard, “House of the Rising Sun” is transformed into a blistering rock rave-up. Simone’s own memorable versions were more conventional, but she’d hardly be one to argue the adventure.
Ndegeocello also does an admirable job of embracing Simone’s frequently angry and outspoken views on racial and social injustice but with her own creative slant. In particular she features Valerie June, a vocalist with a kewpie-doll pinch in her tone, to sing “Be My Husband,” giving it a ’60s-girl-group innocence that adds further punch to Simone’s narrative of a seemingly docile and loyal wife who only stays around because her spouse abuses her and she has nowhere else to go. She also scores in her selection of Cody ChestnuTT to sing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” against a spare mix of flute and acoustic guitar. And when closing with the epic “Four Women,” arguably Simone’s most iconic song, Ndegeocello fashions a haunting, spectral backdrop that meshes perfectly with the song’s use of black female archetypes to recount the gothic history of their subjugation.
Not everything works, of course. To my ears, Ndegeocello’s vocal duet with Sinead O’Connor on “Don’t Take All Night” is as staid as the boring arrangement, and turning “See Line Woman” into a psychedelic spree sacrifices the rapid rhythmic sway that is the song’s primary virtue. But I’m also already returning to Lizz Wright’s glorious gospel pipes on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and loving the way Ndegeocello, unlike Simone, makes the word “happy” sound so vulnerable on “Feeling Good.” In other words, as long as one isn’t looking for a carbon copy of Nina Simone – which would be a doomed endeavor anyway – there is ample grist for spirited debate and cherished new keepsakes among these 14 tunes.