New Amerykah Pt. 1

badu.jpgTitle: New Amerykah Pt. 1 (4th World War)
Artist: Erykah Badu
Label: Universal Records
Catalog No.: B0010800-02
Release date: February 2008

Erykah Badu has graced us with yet another record full of her own unique brand of nu-soul. The four-time Grammy winner’s latest offering, New Amerykah Pt. 1 (4th World War), brings back the same cerebral realism that made her famous. It will come as no surprise to her fans that she collaborated with fellow Soulquarians Bilal, James Poyser, and ?uestlove on some of the production for this album. Moreover, in featuring Madlib, 9th Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Bilal, and Ty & Kory on “Master Teacher,” Badu brings together some new talent with her fellow hip-hop and nu-soul veterans. Consistent with her reputation, Badu makes this New Amerykah sound like the beautiful, excruciating, hopeful place that it is. Whereas records from Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones conjured the 1960s in 2006, Badu leans more toward a 1970s sound here-not in a Jay-Z American Gangster neo-Blaxploitation kind of way, but with all the harmonic complexity of Mahavishnu Orchestra and all the smoothness of Marvin Gaye.

The opening cut imitates an advert: “More action, more excitement, more everything,” and Badu delivers all that and more. There’s a distinct cynicism in beginning this record with “Amerykahn Promise,” and as she fleshes out exactly what she means by that, this album unfolds a painful story of our current national psyche. “The Healer” takes us into Badu’s world of pseudo-Rastafarian shamanistic hip hop. “Me” pre-emptively soothes the coming pain with sublime Moogy synths and mellow horns beneath her plush croon, ending with a section of free-rhythm autobiographical boplicity.

The meat and potatoes of this record lie in the typically Erykahn harmonized vocal vamp of “My People” followed by three tracks of hard-edged poetry on “Soldier,” “The Cell,” and “Twinkle.” Having shouted out to her “boys in Iraqi fields” and decrying dirty cops, she ends “Twinkle” with a rant that refuses to leave people alone with their microwaves, flat-screens, and 20-inch wheels:

“I want you to get angry! I don’t want you to ride, I don’t want you to protest; I don’t want you to write your senator because I won’t know what to tell you to tell him. I don’t know what to do about the recession and the inflation and the crime in the street. All I know is that you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, “I’m a human being, damn it! My life has value!”

She follows up with the flavors of a 70s-style R&B lament and a mellow bossa beat on “Master Teacher.” By this point in the record, she anticipates the kind of blues that can come from such a cynical outlook: “If I could get over that hump, than maybe I will feel better.”

“Telephone” gives us more of those ethereal synths and flutes that Badu’s listeners have come to expect before starting into “Honey” with the same commercial featured on the first cut. In between layered vocal vamps that funk artists would have put in the horn lines, her outro invites us to “please stay tuned for New Amerykah Pt. 2 (Return of the Ankh) . . . please stay tuned for your special ingredient.” For my money, we get enough of the special ingredient in the chorus of this, the best cut on the record. The final track, “Real Thang,” feels out of place; it features the only rapped verses on the album in an anti-climactic remix.

For fans of Erykah Badu, this minor detail will only detract negligibly from an otherwise outstanding body of work. For newcomers to her music, this is as apt an introduction as any of her other records. She’s honest, despite the hurt that such honesty often lends her lyrics. Time will tell if that sting will ease off in Return of the Ankh, but considering her previous work, I doubt it. I anticipate the other half of a project that encompasses all of the sensitivity and smart realism she’s come to be known for. As for now, New Amerykah Pt. 1 delivers another welcome dose of thoughtfully edgy music to an already clever artist’s repertoire.

Posted by Peter J. Hoesing