After 16 seconds of indistinct, ambient background noise, we get a bass line, and a funky snaky ear-grabbing bass line it is. This is Meshell Ndegeocello; she plays bass; and this is how she plays. She had me at hello.
Listen to the mincemeat she makes of the 4/4 time signature, without ever actually leaving it. How could someone conceive of this particular rhythm, never mind add an edgy drumbeat to it, never mind write a song around it? Surely she is not singing while she’s playing here, though I guess you never know. Her smooth round voice floats, unhurried, over the knotty instrumentation of the verse, with a breathy loveliness that belies the venom of the lyrics. With the chorus, everything changes: the beat normalizes, her voice acquires first a plaintive sting and, at the end, as a kicker, plunges into a gruff lower register. As the title suggests, she isn’t singing about rainbows and flowers. There’s a steely conviction running through the center of this song.
Look, too, at how she accomplishes so much with so little. Much of the song is just bass and drums and voice. Guitar and keyboard are not an assumed part of the proceedings but are added only when deemed necessary. The chorus is not much more than the two words, “dirty world,” repeated; the substance comes from the rhythm—specifically, the subtle but definitive shift in emphasis from stressing only the word “world,” the first three times, to additionally stressing the first syllable of “dirty” the fourth time around.
Genre-crossing minimalism has been Ndegeocello’s trademark since Plantation Lullabies, her 1993 debut. “Dirty World” is a track from Weather, her ninth album, due in November on Naïve Records.