Elliptical: The Music of Meshell Ndegeocello by André Akinyele and Jon O’Bergh is the tribute to musician and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello, and is purported to be the first comprehensive overview of her work. The bulk of the book is about André Akinyele’s personal experience discovering her music, while Jon O’Bergh contributes more factual information about her recording history.
I should probably preface this by saying that I wasn’t entirely familiar with the music of Meshell Ndegeocello before receiving this book to review – a career that spans three decades. In short, I haven’t had the same experience of exultation that the author felt as he followed her career from the very beginning. That said, I am a musician and songwriter, and so I headed over to YouTube to listen to Ndegeocello and I totally get it: she’s deeply talented, holding nothing back, and inventing a new musical language with each record.
Now to the book. Akinyele is an absolute superfan for Ndegeocello’s body of work, and his enthusiasm for her career is infectious and engaging. He buys the European pressing of her albums just so he can hear it a few months early! Even when he doesn’t particularly like a direction she’s made with a new album, he still respects her for taking chances, which is what makes her such a strong artist. Peppered throughout his narrative are stories from Akinyele’s own life, so the book is somewhat a biography of his musical journey (a musician himself), not merely a book about a single artist.
At times, his attention to minutiae may be even too much for the committed fan. As they say writing about music is a bit like dancing about architecture, and “Elliptical” does occasionally suffer from this problem. For example, he details her work in this way: “She shakes things up with a different bass line and vibe for verse 2. She elides the chorus and verse by introducing the new bass line in the middle of the preceding chorus.” Even fans who are intimate with her music may not know exactly what he’s referring to here.
The most effective moments are when he deconstructs her lyrics, illustrating that it’s easier and more expressive to write about writing than about music. Here he backs up his dissemination of her music with stories from her life, coloring in more effectively why a song was written. It is also helped by referencing interviews she’s given throughout the years. Unfortunately, there are no direct transcripts of interviews, as that would require permissions, and this is an unauthorized biography. Even without her personal voice, the book does a good job of illuminating her work with biographical details about her life and career trajectory.
Most of all, Akinyele’s absolute passion for Ndegeocello’s music is endearing, and fans of her work are going to be nodding their heads in recognition, and feel like they’ve found a kindred spirit. A casual or committed fan will find “Elliptical” illuminating about Ndegeocello’s work, and comforting that there’s another like-minded devotee of her music.