Although Meshell Ndegeocello scored a few hits early in her career, the bassist, singer, and songwriter later opted to concentrate on more challenging material by exploring the politics of race and sex, among other topics. From her 1993 Maverick label debut through her releases of the 2010s for Naïve, she built a discography of recordings that defied classification through progressive mixtures of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and rock. Initially held in regard primarily for her bass playing and bold lyrics, her songwriting, which often examined dark interpersonal issues, was just as exceptional.
Michelle Lynn Johnson, born on August 29, 1968, spent the first few years of her life in Germany. Her father was both a military man and a jazz saxophonist. She relocated with her family to Virginia in the early '70s. As a youngster, Johnson developed an interest in music; during her teenage years, she began to play regularly in the clubs of Washington, D.C., but eventually settled down in New York City after a stint of studying music at Howard University. By this point, she was going by Me'Shell NdegéOcello — her adopted last name Swahili for "free like a bird." After auditioning for several bands, including Living Colour, NdegéOcello struck out on her own and often performed solo with just a bass, drum machine, and keyboard. In the early '90s, she was one of the first artists signed to Madonna's Warner-affiliated Maverick label.
NdegéOcello's debut album, 1993's Plantation Lullabies, was produced with David Gamson, as well as with André Betts and Bob Power, and involved input from a wide range of musicians, including DJ Premier, Joshua Redman, Bill Summers, Wah-Wah Watson, and David Fiuczynski. An impressive first album, it spawned the hit "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" and received three Grammy nominations. A duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," released a year later, brought her more mainstream attention; it peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Almost three years passed between the release of NdegéOcello's first and second albums, but during the wait, she collaborated with Chaka Khan on the track "Never Miss the Water," and she appeared on movie soundtracks (White Man's Burden, Money Talks) and on such multi-artist releases as Ain't Nuthin' But a She Thing and Lilith Fair, Vol. 3. Peace Beyond Passion finally saw release in 1996, peaked higher on the Billboard 200 (at number 63), and was also nominated for a Best R&B Album Grammy. Its cover of Bill Withers' "Who Is He (And What Is He to You?)" topped Billboard's club chart. Produced by Gamson, it featured a longer list of noted associates, including several heard on the debut, as well as Billy Preston, Bennie Maupin, David Torn, Wendy Melvoin, and Paul Riser.