Music

Erykah Badu: New Amerykah

We're starring in an ongoing blockbuster movie and Erykah Badu releases Part One of the score, with hip-hop and '70s soul. Right on, Mama! So can you dig it?


Erykah Badu

New Amerykah, Part One

Subtitle: (4th World War)
Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2008-02-26
UK Release Date: 2008-03-03
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If Erykah Badu isn't the baddest mamma jamma since Pam Grier played Blaxploitation divas "Foxy Brown" and "Coffy", she's the closest. With the February 26, 2008 release of New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War), she's out to prove it.

And prove it she does. But New Amerykah won't fit as comfortably in Ms. Badu's discography as we might have expected. While the LP is smart and funky as hell, it distinguishes itself because it's part of a series. Presumably, we'll have a better understanding of the overall objective when Part Two arrives.

Nevertheless, fans who love her debut, Baduizm (1997), might argue that New Amerykah doesn't have the distinctive (yet difficult to define) "neo-soul" flavor that made Baduizm a watershed moment in "modern" R&B (that is, "post-Thriller" and "after-Marvin"). Baduizm yielded the hit "On & On", the song that introduced us to Ms. Badu's mesmerizing lyricism and creative videos, along with her delicately evocative voice that still seems rightfully descended from Billie Holiday.

Another portion of the fan base might argue that New Amerykah lacks the flowing and free-spirited vibe of Live (1997), a suite of performances revisiting selections from the debut, and giving us the humorous but keepin'-it-very-real "Tyrone". You remember "Tyrone", don't you? It was a slow-grinding eviction notice from a frustrated girlfriend. Her ne'er-do-well boyfriend wouldn't buy a sista nothin', wouldn't treat a sista right, and loved hangin' out with his likeminded no-car-drivin', no-cash-havin' friends: Jim, James, Paul, and (oh yes!) Tyrone. Fed up with this madness, she gives the boyfriend the boot, advising him to call Tyrone "and tell him come on, help you get yo' sh*t". Male bashing? I think not. That's just tellin' it like it is. Best to tighten up your game, fellas.

Along the same lines, there's Worldwide Underground (2003), a tasty treat of bump-n-bass jams. Groovy and mostly consistent, Worldwide Underground cranked the smoothness and included such tunes as "Bump It" and its boomin' system mentality, the nostalgic "Back in the Day", the ultra-creative 11-minute come hither "I Want You", and the monster track "Danger". However, with each listen to New Amerykah, it becomes clear that it won't be mimicking the spins of Ms. Badu's looser, party-vibe releases. New Amerykah emphasizes themes of war, identity, and renewal in place of grooves and melodies.

We might, however, find similarities between New Amerykah and Mama's Gun (2000). There is a Badu school of thought, of which I am a proud member, that champions all of her releases but believes Mama's Gun is her masterpiece thus far. It's funky, earthy, and playful, from the rebelliously eclectic opener, "Penitentiary Philosophy", to "Green Eyes", the daring closing in three musical movements. One song, the provocatively titled "Booty", is a slinky parlor dance in which the lead voice counts all the ways she could snatch another woman's man, only to confess that there's one reason why she won't do it: "Because of what he's doin' to you -- I hope you would've done the same thing for me too." The prominent single, "Bag Lady", compared the bags of everyday life (luggage, grocery bags, sandwich bags, etc.) to the emotional "baggage" held by some of our planet's otherwise wonderful ladies. "One day, he gon' say, 'You crowdin' my space," she warned. "So pack light." Female bashing? I think not. That's just good advice.

Since there hasn't been a Badu's Greatest Hits collection to guide us, I'll give you my rankings as of right now: (1) Mama's Gun (rating: 9 out of 10), (2) New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) (rating: 9 out of 10), (3) Baduizm (rating: 8 out of 10), (4) Worldwide Underground (rating: 7 out of 10), (5) Live (rating: 6 out of 10). Let the disagreement begin.

New Amerykah, though, resists comparison to its predecessors because it's like a movie soundtrack more than a standalone album. Of course, the star of the show is Erykah Badu, who's as open and candid as ever, matching her warmth with her wisdom, along with her heightened awareness of what makes people, including herself, tick. She has been, and continues to be, equal parts shaman and vulnerable human being. She's a mystic, whose music seeks to illuminate life's mysteries, but she's also an inquisitive soul who seeks refuge in the understanding that facing one's insecurities is the first step toward freedom.

In this film, Erykah Badu plays multiple roles, as she's successfully done in the past. In "The Healer", she establishes a divine discourse between "the children" and "the healer", extolling the greatness of hip-hop. Flipping Dead Prez's claim that "it's bigger than hip-hop", the Healer declares that hip-hop is "bigger than religion" and "bigger than the government". She explicitly dedicates the tune to "Dilla", as in production wizard J. Dilla (James Yancey) who passed away in 2006. At other times, Ms. Badu is a storyteller, one of her many musical fortes, but the tales here aren't as lighthearted as the aforementioned metaphor in "Bag Lady" or even the fed-up perspective in "Tyrone". For instance, "The Cell" and its minimalist story of Brenda -- who "done died with no name / nickel bag coke to the brain" -- is sobering.

Sometimes, as in the song "Cleva" from Mama's Gun ("This is how I look without makeup"), she's portraying herself in straightforward fashion, and she has no trouble rummaging through her life story. Her introspection is merciless in "Me", in which she dishes her own dirt ("Had two babies [by] different dudes") and faces the unceasing movement of time ("This year I turn 36 / damn it seems it came so quick"). Indeed, the album's U.S. street date, February 26, is her birthday, which adds to the personal significance. Further, the funny spelling of "America" as "Amerykah" is perhaps the coolest statement I've ever seen that the fate of a nation is intertwined with the fate of its individuals.

The supporting cast members are prominent and impressive. Production credits, and co-credits, go out to Roy Ayers ("Amerykahn Promise"), Madlib ("The Healer", "My People"), Shafiq Husayn ("Me", "The Cell", "Master Teacher"), Kariem Riggins ("Soldier"), Taz Arnold, Mike Chavarria, James Poyser, and Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson. You gotta love guest vocals by Bilal in "Twinkle", Roy Hargrove's horns in "Me", and the crazy hot bass by Thunder Cat (Stephen Bruner) in "The Cell".

So the cast has a dazzling and captivating lead actress in Erykah Badu, a notable supporting cast, and an ambitious production crew. What about the plot? Well, the beauty of this film is that we don't have to wait to see it. We've been living it. It's an amalgam of post-Civil Rights Era experience mixed with a post-9/11 worldview, plus a few shots of community spirit, individual growth, pleas for social activism and spiritual enlightenment, and, yes, the realities of death.

In terms of society's adjustments after September 11, 2001 and war in Iraq, New Amerykah is cut from the same thematic cloth as Suzanne Vega's Beauty & Crime, a rather remarkable ode to New York. Where Ms. Vega's ruminations hit home for her in "Ludlow Street", a song about her late brother, one of Ms. Badu's personal tunes is "Telephone", a song inspired by stories J. Dilla's mother shared about her son. In it, another deceased artist, Ol' Dirty Bastard, has called Dilla to give him "directions home". It's a moving tribute to both artists, and Badu's shimmering vocals transform the personal loss into a universally understood moment of sorrow and hope.

Excluding the exquisitely sweet and radio-friendly bonus track, "Honey" (produced by 9th Wonder), you now know how the movie ends. But how does it begin? It all starts with a trailer-style intro, "Amerykahn Promise". Accompanied by special effects, an announcer's voice claims that we'll have "more action" (punch punch), "more excitement" (blip blip blip), and "more everything". Then the song drops, ushering in a fast-paced funk workout, complete with a wickedly tight horn section, and a male voice that's almost, but not quite as deep as Don Cornelius's from Soul Train. That authoritarian voice makes its pronouncements sound more like martial law than good tidings. "We take your history," he beams, "and make it a modern mystery." "We love to suck you dry," he gloats. Meanwhile, Ms. Badu channels the classic soul vibe (right on!), and you can almost visualize the movie clips that would play behind this song: brothas and sistas rockin' butterfly collars and bell bottoms, pattin' their Afros, and givin' each other high fives -- on the black hand side, ya dig?

Speaking of "history", that "promise" in the song title recalls Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech of 1963. Dr. King referred to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as "promissory notes to which every American was to fall heir." The promise was supposed to guarantee "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Dr. King went on to state that America had "defaulted on this promissory note" and opted to give black people "a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds."

Some parts of the album seem committed to having America honor that "promissory note", as in the chanting meditation "My People" that repeats its encouragement ("Hold on…my people") over a twinkling Madlib beat. Other parts of the album seem to reject the promise, or at least the idea that the promise can be fulfilled without considerable effort from the intended recipients. Following "My People", Ms. Badu asks, "Good morning, did you have dream?", while a voice of outrage at the end of "Twinkle" chastises our complacency: "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'!" After this, the phrase "I stay woke" becomes a refrain in "Master Teacher" (featuring Georgia Anne Muldrow), a song that envisions a higher level of black identity, "What if there was no n*ggas only master teachers?" Then, Erykah Badu sums it up, "I'm in the search of something new / Search inside me, searching inside you".

This clash between progress and patience is dramatized by the album's clash in musical styles, as the songs alternate between hip-hop beats and classic soul. Yet, upon closer inspection, the album maintains a sense of thematic unity, if not stylistic cohesion. The song sequencing deserves some of the credit, while the album art, illustrated by EMEK Studios, reinforces the musical presentation. The cover depicts Badu rocking her Afro, but it's filled with images of chains attached to musical notes, toilets, fists, dollar signs, needles, laptops, turntables, and all manner of bric-a-brac. In the '80s, Prince had a b-side called "She's Always in My Hair". New Amerykah's cover suggests Erykah Badu has a lot going on in hers.

The CD booklet goes further, with images ranging from psychedelic and futuristic to apocalyptic and downright creepy, such as: a red-eyed Uncle Sam pointing a gun at the viewer, instead of the usual look of him pointing his index finger; a suited skeleton, with a dollar sign in its milk bone skull, lecturing a crowd of headless people from a podium bearing the pyramid image from the back of the U.S. one dollar bill; robotic creatures giving each other tattoos; a fork, a hypodermic needle, and a spoon bending like the clocks Salvador Dali painted into wilting skins in his famous piece "Persistence of Memory". My favorite visual is the one of the bar code with the alphanumeric message "50C1AL 5Y5T3M", or "Social System".

My only question is: if Part One of New Amerykah is the "4th World War", what was the Third World War? I'm familiar enough with World Wars I and II, but number three escapes me. Was it the Civil Rights Era's fight for individual rights? Was it the Cold War? The "War on Drugs"? The "War on Crime"? The "War on Terror" and/or the conflict in Iraq and the Middle East? I'm curious because the "war" of New Amerykah sounds like it's taking place on a psychological level. What, pray tell, is the bridge that connects the physical wars of old to the psychological war of today?

As the saga closes with J. Dilla's ascension in "Telephone", the "Amerykahn Promise" trailer precedes the bonus track, "Honey", as if to give us a taste of what's to come in Part Two. An insert for Erykah Badu ringtones promises the next installment will be subtitled "Part Two: Return of the Ankh", foreshadowing a spiritual theme. Erykah Badu droppin' some spirit-moving, hot-buttered soul on us? Sounds dy-no-mite to me, Jack.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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