Erykah Badu, the "neo-soul sorceress" and honorary Jezebel, celebrated two things yesterday: Her 37th birthday and the release of her first album in five years, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War). Badu first came to the public's notice with her awesome 1997 release Baduizm and her neo-bohemian look and attitude (remember her large turban?) and, although many critics can't quite understand her music, most are just glad to see her back in the recording studio. Some collected reviews after the jump.
More than ever though, Badu challenges fans to keep up with her creative impulses. Those who do will be richly rewarded for their effort. The CD is more daring than the album's current single, "Honey." Hidden as the disc's closing bonus track, it's almost an anomaly given the preceding material.
Badu sings with a graceful self-acceptance that would do Mary J. Blige proud, but she delivers it with an easy humor Blige has never shown. Madlib also guides the breezy, midtempo charmer ''My People,'' while ''Soldier 7'' serves up a lyrical state-of-the-union update on Marvin Gaye's ''What's Going On.'' The portrait of urban blight that follows, ''The Cell,'' does the same with Stevie Wonder's ''Living for the City.''It's odd, then, that ''Honey,'' the album's bonus track, is also its first single. The song's squiggly bass line and cute but inane sentiments (''Honey, you so sweet/Sugar got a long way to catch you'') are perhaps the safest, least interesting efforts on the album. Thankfully, Badu spent 10 other tracks showing us exactly what she can do. A-
Some of the music is gripping — the modal-sounding chorus and blippy groove of "My People" suggests an R&B version of Radiohead — but other tunes feel like absent-minded doodles, and Badu's social consciousness nets middling returns. There are passing references to falling buildings and young men ending up in prison, plus praise for Louis Farrakhan, but there's nothing specific enough to qualify as actual commentary. Still, it's good to have Badu back trying new things. She'll have another shot this year to get back to greatness.
Badu's intense New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War), the opening salvo of a promised two-disc series (three if you count a live album Universal is promising in late 2008), is as sonically ambitious as anything she's done to date. It's sort of the flip to Worldwide Underground in that both albums are so diffuse as to seem careless and haphazard to some listeners. But whereas the earlier album maintained a laidback, even keel (held together under the influence of the Mizell brothers), New AmErykah is some cracked, urgent, just plain weird boho avant shit. Worldwide Underground was Parliament. New AmErykah is Funkadelic.
"New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)" is the first installment of a projected pair, and it's a deep, murky swim in her brain. Whether you like it depends in great part on how much you liked her before — the persona as well as the music. She's still interested in long songs with little development, but she has turned away from live-band studio jams; most of these tracks were made on a hard drive, hip-hop-style, by producers including Madlib, Shafiq Husayn and Taz Arnold, and 9th Wonder, with a few live instruments added. Sometimes the tracks bear echoes of the old neo-soul style she helped shape in the late '90s, like Roy Hargrove's soft, multitracked trumpets in "Me."
The album is just not as musically accessible as Badu's previous platinum-selling releases. (Well, come to think of it, Badu has always been an acquired taste.)But New Amerykah especially begs for your patience. It's a dark, politically charged album. Lyrically, Badu is cryptic and elliptical as the music, which is bottom-heavy and mostly programmed this time, throbs and meanders. The album has the feel of an underground mixtape with beats courtesy of hip-hop producers Madlib, Shafiq Husayn of the Sa-Ra Creative Partners and others.