Jay Z throws some shade on Yoko Ono halfway through Justin Timberlake's new album, which is streaming this week. It's a familiar diss, more tired than shocking, and it begins Hov's verse on the thumping "Murder": "Yoko Ono, she got that Yoko Ono / You know that shit that made John Lennon go solo / Know that shit gotta be lethal / If that shit broke up The Beatles."
Thankfully, Ono isn't particularly sweating the denouncement. She has better things to worry about, she says.
"Many, many people in the world think that I did break up The Beatles," the veteran artist, songwriter, and peace activist told The Atlantic Wire in an interview this week. "Instead of using my energy and my time trying to correct them, I'm just going on writing songs. I'm using my energy on that."
Which sounds accurate, because that's precisely what she's been doing. At 80—an age when most artists find themselves settling into retirement and maybe the odd nostalgia tour—Ono has been riding a strangely restless creative and political wind. Last year, she and Sean, her son with John Lennon, launched a campaign against fracking, uniting artists, attending protests in Albany, and courting the ire of the Independent Oil & Gas Association. In June, shortly after completing her instruction book, Acorn, she curated the Meltdown festival in London.
And just last week she released Take Me to the Land of Hell, her third full-length album since relaunching the Plastic Ono Band moniker in 2009—40 years after forming the conceptual supergroup with John at the end of the '60s. Teeming with abrupt stylistic lurches and unlikely guests (Questlove, Lenny Kravitz, Ad-Rock, and Mike D top the guest list), the record is among Ono's most eclectic and, perhaps, best works. Fittingly, the set bridges past and present in odd, unexpected ways: the disc is full of nods to '70s funk flourishes and antiwar slogans ("Stop the violence! Stop all wars!" Ono chants on "Cheshire Cat Cry"), and its title refers to those erstwhile days with the late Beatle.
"The whole world was giving me hell, John and me. We were surrounded by really nasty people," Ono explained. "But we were in love, and our heaven was created right in hell. And in a way, we never wanted to escape from it. We were in love and it's fine that we were in hell. So Take Me to the Land of Hell is like, 'Take me to the land where John and I were.'"
By design, Plastic Ono Band's lineup encompasses a revolving door of members and guests. These days, its core contains Ono, Yuka Honda, Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada, and Sean. It was the latter—who was not yet born during the group's first incarnation—who suggested resurrecting the Plastic Ono Band name in the first place.
"Sean called me one day. He said, 'Mommy, I want to ask you something: would you mind if we revive the Plastic Ono Band?'" Ono recalled. "I said, 'I don't understand, why would you want to do that?' Well, he's the son of John and Yoko and we were the ones who created the Plastic Ono Band. It's his parents. So it's a different take on it than me."
Sean co-produced the record, but he's also the subject of "Little Boy Blue," a sort of spiritual offspring to John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy." "We didn't know that Sean was going to have to go through some suffering," said Ono of the song's genesis, "and I feel very guilty about that, in a way. John would have felt guilty too, if he was around. So what I have to say to him: 'Your mom understands you.'"
Frequent collaborator Honda, meanwhile, helped connect Ono with the album's cast of guests, including the Beastie Boys' Mike D and Ad-Rock, who appear on the fidgety "Bad Dancer." ("They're really hip," Ono said of the pair. "[Yuka Honda] just said, 'We can ask the Beastie Boys.' [I said,] 'Are you sure?' 'Let's try it or something.'") The most fruitful conjoining, though, may be "Tabetai," a start-stop polyrhythmic groove featuring tUnE-yArDs. "When I heard tUnE-yArDs, I thought, 'I've got to have them on my album.' It's just fantastic," Ono said. But she bristled when asked if she'd been influenced by any of the new generation of artists: "They don't influence me. I influenced them."
The album's disorienting amalgamation of styles—funk and spoken-word, trip hop and sparse piano balladry—led Ono to debut the songs online one song at a time rather than in album form. But she says it's all part of the design.
"There are many facets of me and I don't want to just show one facet," Ono said. "Like my album. It has several different forms of music. I just get tired of being the good girl Yoko. So this was an experiment."
Top photo: Reuters; additional photos of Ono: Associated Press