Thursday, August 21, 2008

Erykah Badu -- New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008)

Erykah Badu -- New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (Universal Motown)

On her first two albums, Badu showed off considerable talent as one of the wave of great performers of the neo-soul movement that started in the late-‘90s. She’s a beguiling vocalist, who doesn’t dazzle with her range, instead letting her phrasing and songwriting impress.

As good as her first two albums were, they provided no preparation for this ambitious, exciting effort, which was years in the making. Badu raises the stakes both musically and lyrically, making an album that perfectly melds the golden age of funk with modern hip-hop, while getting up on her soapbox to report what’s going on in the world around her.

At certain points, the politics border on strident, but the extremely compelling music, along with the justified anger that supports her commentary, keep this from merely being an exercise in polemics.

The album gets off to a thrilling start with a scintillating version of Roy Ayers’s “Amerykahn Promise”, produced by the veteran funkmeister himself. This song percolates with guitar and percussion accents, sounding like the theme from a cult blaxploitation flick, Badu singing up a storm (think back to the early, funky Natalie Cole of “Sophisticated Lady”) while Ramp, a deep voiced narrator, adds an array of interesting observations.

The album then shifts gears into low key finger snapping funk on “The Healer”, produced by Madlib (a known Roy Ayers sampler). Badu sings in a soft girlish voice, in a call-and-response with a distant children’s chorus. This song is about reconnecting with African roots and fighting back, and it entices rather than overwhelms.

The contrast between hot-and-cool sustains this album, as Madlib, producer Shafiq Husayn and others take turns helping Badu put together some terrific backing tracks, almost always topped off by smooth melodies that bring back the best of ‘70s soul.

The album reaches a high point right smack dab in the middle. “Soldier”, co-produced by Badu and Kariem Riggins, is simply an insistent drum beat and a stately keyboard line, with Badu doing her version of being a newspaper for the world (shades of The Clash and Boogie Down Productions). Badu tells the tragic tale of an honor student gunned down, but instead of wallowing in pity, her message is that you can’t give up: “To my folks on the picket line/don’t stop till you change they mind/I got love for my folks/baptized when the levy broke/we gone keep marchin’ on/till we hear that freedom song.”

On “The Cell”, Badu goes back into ‘70s retro-funk territory. Husayn and Badu aren’t satisfied with a mid-tempo funk rhythm track that grabs a hold and doesn’t let go. The song’s about living in a world of drugs and prostitution, with blunt, matter of fact lyrics. The chorus is addictive -- as addictive as a chorus with the lyric “shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang” can be. Which is pretty addictive (hmm...addictive might be a bad choice of words in this context).

Badu hits a high point thematically on “Master Teacher”. The song is a fever dream about staying awake and sending out a message to the African-American community about how good examples need to be set. This isn’t hooky, but it’s still memorable, as a sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” (specifically, the line “a beautiful world, I’m trying to find”) weaves in and out. The key line of the song -- “what if there was no niggas only master teachers” is an angry plea for something better.

While funk is clearly what this album is all about, there are some songs here that have a bit more of a mellower Stevie Wonder/Rufus with Chaka Khan feel. That only adds to the quality of this album. Badu was already a considerable artist, but with this album, it appears that she’s capable of whatever she wants. I hope we don’t have to wait so long for Part Two.

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