While the internet erupted in full-on shitstorm mode over casting actress Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the upcoming Nina, genre-bending icon Meshell Ndegeocello was busy staking a less disputable claim to the venerable singer/songwriter's legacy. On her latest record Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, Meshell Ndegeocello covers songs either written by Nina Simone or famously interpreted by her. But rather than try to recreate Simone's sound (because really, why try and fail to recreate perfection?) Meshell has done something both subtler and more impressive: captured Nina Simone's soul.
The songs on the record comprise both some of Nina Simone's best known songs from “Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and “Feelin' Good” to cult favorites like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Be My Husband.” Meshell's arrangements are smart to reinvent the wheel. Often straying far from the source material, as on the nearly unrecognizable “House of the Rising Sun,” she justifies this record's existence by finding radical new interpretations in songs that have been recorded, re-recorded, and re-interpreted within an inch of their lives. Her arrangement of “Feelin' Good” adds a roughness and clutter that bolds the question mark that's often implied.
Meshell handles lead vocals on most songs, but notably hands over lead duties to kindred spirits Cody ChesnuTT on the stunningly arranged “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and to (my current musical addiction) Valerie June on “Be My Husband.” Re-imagining the song originally written by Simone's ex-husband Andrew Stroud with a touch of ominousness, “Be My Husband” is one of the record's biggest highlights. In light of Meshell Ndegeocello's LGBT activism, it's hard not to hear the song as a criticism of patriarchy every time she strikes her overdriven bass on the offbeats. Elsewhere Meshell switches up the pronouns in “Black Is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)” to profound effect. Meshell honors Nina Simone's outspoken Civil Rights activism by bringing the struggle for equality to LGBT rights as well.
So let the battle rage on over whether Zoe Saldana should get to be the face of Nina Simone's legacy. One thing that is absolutely not in dispute (as far as I'm concerned at least) is who carries the torch for Simone's soul. Pour Une Âme Souveraine is currently available on iTunes or Amazon. Nina Simone's music is available basically everywhere. I suggest you pick up both.
- Words by Nathan Leigh