I hate to be less than timely, but I could not write about Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) last week, when it was released. I had not yet absorbed it. It was too dense for me to process immediately -- like the afro of raised fists, smoke stacks, unborn babies, syringes, laptops, turntables and handcuffs that frames Erykah's face on its cover, it was a lot to get around my head.
My initial reaction was to drool slackjawed in this album's wake, but then someone whose opinion I often trust more than my own told me he thought it was an unfinished mess, and that made me reevaluate everything. I think that's maybe what I needed to understand the album: it's not something to experience, per se, but something to sift through. The album offers enough material to make the brilliant-mess-vs.-messy-mess debate thrive until the third World War wipes us all out. Until then, please consider me a proud trash-picker.
I almost (but not quite!) hasten to proclaim my adoration for this album (OMG, I can't stop listening to it), because I feel biased. I feel like I have a predisposition toward getting it and loving it, because it speaks to me so directly on an ideological level (except for, you know, that whole Farrakhan thing). Below are some points on which I feel that I see eye-to-eye with Ms. Badu. Take me with a grain of salt that's even bigger than usual -- if, unlike me, you aren't feeling the way Erykah does, you might not be feeling the album.
She believes in progress - If Erykah's 1997 debut Baduizm was dinner-party music fit for an Oprah soirée, New Amerykah Part One is the soundtrack for a shrooming picnic. Nothing could have predicted the queasy concoction of a disco stomp, wandering upright bass, near-tribal clap-and-shuffle percussion and sunny horns that is "Me," or the way the keyboards disintegrate over firearm-echoing snares in "Twinkle," or "Master Teacher," which chugs along like it's wading through cosmic slop (aided by Motowny strings and looped vocals from Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead"), only to stumble into a mid-song lite-jazz stroll. Sonically, the album is out of its mind, and that's by design: it's all sort of a meta commentary on the current state of R&B. She told BET.com: "I see a change very soon and I’m just ready for music to be just so creative and expansive all across the board. And I’ma do anything in my power to inject a little bit into that every chance I get." See? She told you she was the healer.
She believes in the people - The music is meta-commentary (though its thrilling melodies elevate it beyond polemic), and consciousness runs through the album's lyrics as well. Sometimes she talks about what's going on upstairs and on the radio in one glorious swoop (when she sings, "You've been programmed," in "The Healer," she's talking about the tendency toward mediocrity of today's hip-hop, as well as our resulting lowered expectations). But mostly, it's just straightforward social commentary. She spins age-old tales that will always be worth spinning as long as epidemics persist ("They keep us uneducated, sick and depressed / They end up in blood / Doctor, I'm addicted, now I'm under arrest / They end up in blood"), and preaches to the converted so that we don't become unconverted or think we're crazy for holding onto faith in that elusive concept of justice for all. There's something deliciously impish, if not problematic, in her attempt to give power to the people - my favorite track, the relatively sparse, knocking and flutey "Soldier," is as much as a call to arms ("Do you want to see / Everybody rise to the next degree / Raise your hands high if you agree / Just say yes sir-ee") as it is a declaration of the right to bear them ("We gon' keep marchin on / Till we hear that freedom song / And if you think about turnin’ back / I got the shot gun on your back”). Malcolm would be proud.
She believes that fame is crippling - "Sometimes it's hard to move, you see / When you're growing publicly," she sings in "Me." This we all know, if we've ever looked at the Internet, like, once and bore witness to the developmentally arrested stars that occupy our current pantheon. But I can't even express how refreshing it is to hear one of them acknowledge it.
She believes that nature and nurture are not mutually exclusive - The title of "The Cell" refers to both the DNA that predisposes people to addiction ("Momma hopped up on cocaine / Daddy on space ships with no brain / Sister gon' numb the pain the same / Why? / Same DNA cell") and the prison their life becomes as a result. The title's double meaning is wondrously succinct commentary, and that fact is elucidated by the fact that the song's alternate title was once "Jail Cell vs. DNA Cell." I know this because it's in one of her handwritten notes that accompanies the lyrics of every song in the CD booklet. Said booklet is required reading and it makes buying the album (instead of pirating it) in one's best interest. So she's doing her part for the diseased music industry, too. Does her charity ever cease?
She believes in the power of subtlety - "My People" may just sound like a three-and-a-half minute ride to nowhere, as Badu chants "Hold on / my people" repeatedly over Madlib's microtones and piston-like percussion. It isn't until you listen, like really, really listen, that you're able realize there's an actual song, however freely associative, that lurks underneath. Also, Badu's voice keeps its tempered tang most of the time throughout New Amerykah Part One, which is such a nice contrast to the music: she's put together while her sound is all over the place. However, when she does take it to church, she can knock your ass on the floor her poor character's brother sleeps on in "That Hump." She pours so much emotion into the lines, "I’m livin’ check to check / Just tryin’ to pay my rent and I can feel it comin’ down around me / And these children / A boy / A little girl, and she’s so pretty / Oh, feel me / We just need a better house." They sound not trite, but like an entirely new look.
She believes in the power of staying true to yourself - All of the sonic globetrotting and hallucinatory experimentation is wonderful, but it's on the album's most straightforward track, "Telephone," that Badu hits her emotional high-point. An ode to the late Dilla (it was inspired by a story his mom told Erykah the day he died and recorded the day after his funeral), it's full of the Baduisms you'd expect if you were only familiar with Erykah's first album. It's a slow, jazzy repetitive little thing that takes over seven minutes to unfurl, and I love how simple it is. It's as though tragedy has forced Erykah back into the musical womb, and instead of sounding regressive, what comes out is beauty. May all of us be heralded with such a stunning obituary.
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen. Yes sir-ee. Amen.