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?
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.