Say what you will about bassist, songwriter, singer, bandleader, and arranger Meshell Ndegeocello, any box you attempt to put her into is not possibly big enough to hold her creativity and restless, unwieldy aesthetic vision. On "The Sloganeer: Paradise," a tune in which she equates the bland, complicit nature of blindly living modern life with committing suicide, she sings: "To know me is to know I love with/My imagination." It's a summation of her entire career thus far, and this album furthers that notion exponentially. The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams is Ndegeocello's debut for Decca; it is wilder than Cookie: An Anthropological Mixtape, or her last recording, The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel. The latter set was a project that indulged her love of postmodern jazz and engaged in improvisation. She directed an ensemble that included Oliver Lake, Don Byron, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Garrett, Ron Blake, Brandon Ross, Lalah Hathaway, Cassandra Wilson, and others. It walked a line between tight song-oriented material and longer jam-based tunes, and she didn't really sing on it. That's remedied here, and her sultry, smoky voice is heard on virtually every cut. Musically, this albums walks through walls. There are funky soul tunes whose backdrops are full of psychedelic music that would make the latter-day Jimi Hendrix smile in delight (think the material from Cry of Love). There are jazz-oriented tunes that slip toward pop, folk, and whole-tone folk songs. The lyrical content engages spiritual concerns and carnal love more often than not in the same song. And while she once more employs a wildly diverse collection of collaborators that include everyone from Ross and Lake to Pat Metheny, Oumou Sangare, Robert Glasper, Mike Severson, Daniel Jones, Doyle Bramhall, David Gilmore (not the one from Pink Floyd), James Newton, and Graham Haynes, she also cut two songs ("Evolution" and the bonus cut "Soul Spaceship"), playing all the instruments herself. So what does it sound like? The future arriving fully formed on the doorstep. It opens provocatively enough with noted American Muslim teacher and Islamic scholar Shiek Hamza Yusuf reciting the predictions of Mohammed to a backwash of Ross' guitar and ambient sounds. (Yusuf was the man who appeared with George W. Bush after 9/11 and denounced the attacks and all religious violence, and is working for a return to Islamic sciences as well as assisting Western governments in understanding Islamic culture and Muslims.) It moves into a rock & roll dreamscape called "Sloganeering: Paradise" awash in keyboards, a drummer playing drum and bass breaks that would make Prince jealous. "Evolution" is a spaced-out psychedelic dirge with few lyrics and a sound field worthy of Hendrix (and indeed her guitar playing is influenced in that direction). The sci-fi jazz of "Virgo," with Lake, Newton, and trombonist George McMullen, hovers and floats in vanguard space before turning into a dreamy pop song with acoustic guitars, synth washes, and samples but is held together with a gorgeous melody and vocal performance (and contains a funky little solo by Lake on alto saxophone). "Shirk" is a gorgeous spiritual duet between Sangare and Ndegeocello with Hervé Sambe and Metheny on acoustic guitars. Metheny also appears on "Article," the following cut with a guest appearance by Thandiswa Mazwai singing with Ndegéocello, but this time out she pops that bass of hers in response. It's a dizzying cut with shifting rhythms and textures, and call-and-response vocals that feel more like counterpoint as different sonic and textural motifs move across the front of the tune. All this and the record is just over halfway. The deep spirituality at work here has been present in Ndegeocello's work arguably since the beginning, but it has become more pronounced in recent years. That said, the beautiful and poetic expressions of desire as it encounters both flesh and the divine are soulful, without pretension or artifice. "Michelle Johnson" is a freewheeling exploration of electronic outer realms, tough guitar, and bass-heavy funk, with killer drum kit work by Deantoni Parks and hand percussion by Gilmar Gomes. The sonic treatments by Scott Mann and Chad Royce are all structure to fill the space around the artist's basslines and expressive belly-deep voice -- and you can be the judge as to which Michelle Johnson she's speaking of here. "Solomon" is among the most beautiful songs this woman has ever written. It is presented in a painterly way, illustrated and framed inside a warm bubbly electronic backdrop that gives way to languid melody, a spine-moving bassline that grooves low and slow on this futuristic soul lullaby. The official album closes with the completely out-to-lunch "Relief: A Stripper Classic," which is the true missing link between urban soul, heavy metal, and slow, downtempo funk -- all of it with a pronounced hook and refrain. "Soul Spaceship" is the place where Sly Stone, Amp Fiddler, and Millie Jackson meet in a big bass sci-fi wonderland presided over by Rick James and Teena Marie! The basslines and synth lines are huge, drum machines abound and skitter, and all the while Ndegéocello and Sy Smith make a beautifully grooving mess with the vocals. Ultimately, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, with its irony, sincerity, seeming contradiction, and elliptical paradox, is the most expansive, complex record yet released by this always provocative artist. It will take more than a single listen to warm up to, but once you actually take it in, it will be one of her recordings you go back to over and again because while it gives up its secrets slowly, it gives the listener something new each time too. Wild, visionary, and marvelously tough, this is a groover that will turn you inside out.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek