Meshell Ndegeocello begins her new album, Pour Une me Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, with "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." It's one of the most begging, shame-faced songs in pop history, yet it's inextricably linked to Simone, one of American music's most defiant and stately artists. Ndegeocello, an accomplished R&B singer and bassist, uses it to signal that she understands Simone's complexity and incongruity. After all, Simone's voice mastered the flitting cadences of playful jazz tunes like "Love Me or Leave Me" but often escalated to a brassy growl, like on "Mississippi Goddam," when she told racists they were "all gonna die like flies."
Ndegeocello, who'll visit the Barrymore Theatre Friday, Nov. 30, doesn't try to replicate Simone's voice or the mysterious flourish of her arrangements. Instead she patiently, almost cautiously explores the character Simone brought to her covers and originals. "Misunderstood" builds on warm electric-guitar chords, not the spooky hush of Simone's version. Drummer Deantoni Parks quietly adds tension to the song, yet Ndegeocello holds back, delivering her vocals smoothly and gently, not throwing herself into the desperation and self-loathing the lyrics imply.
The album's guest performers include Sinéad O'Connor ("Don't Take All Night") and Cody Chesnutt ("To Be Young, Gifted, and Black"), but its most powerful moments come when Ndegeocello wanders into moods as lonesome and strange as Simone herself. On "Feelin' Good," keyboardist Jebin Bruni accompanies Ndegeocello's vocal with careful sweeps of electric piano, taking the song to a more meditative place than the horn arrangements on Simone's version allow. More importantly, both versions transform lyrics about birds and butterflies into an escape, a celebration of "a bold world."
If anything, Ndegeocello errs on the side of restraint. Simone's "Four Women," a portrait of African American women enduring legacies of slavery and rape, includes a great clatter of drums and piano, and a shout: "My name is Peaches!" Ndegeocello omits that line, leaving off at the refrain, "What do they call me?" Here's hoping Ndegeocello brings darker, more daring interpretations to her live Simone tribute.