Revising My ‘Favorites of 2008’ List (Or: New Horizons, New Amerykah)
Erykah Badu hasn’t always been known for her clarity and candor. Her 1997 debut, Baduizm, was aptly named: The artist wrote in cryptic poetry that sometimes eluded real scrutiny. It wasn’t until 2000’s Mama’s Gun that she began to speak in plainer– but no less eloquent– language about issues romantic and spiritual, personal and political. Curiously, as her lyrics became less muddied, her music went in a somewhat opposite direction: Mama’s Gun represented a fusion of styles so seamless, it took several listens to realize how sophisticated it really was, even more so than the “neo-soul” of Baduizm.
There was a fifty-minute “EP” in there, as well, but one senses that, for Badu, her true third album is New Amerykah, Part 1: 4th World War. Actually, you could almost call it her debut; her first two records were both wonderful, but this one feels like the birth of a fully-formed artist who is without a clear precedent. To put it simply, New Amerykah is something else altogether, both from Badu’s previous albums and from recorded music in general. Defiantly adventurous, wholly out-there, and clearly the product of a visionary auteur, this is a work of stunning fusion and inspiration: A work in which word, voice, and beat are welded together into something scarily flawless and organic, and an epochal synthesis of different black music idioms, deserving a place alongside landmarks such as On the Corner and The Low End Theory.
Needless to say, I’ve been playing this one a lot. It seems like every year there’s one album that I just don’t get around to hearing, and, some months later, it sends me scurrying to revise my previous “favorites of the year” list. And this is that album: In 2008, only TV on the Radio’s Dear Science matched this one in terms of ambition and vision, and Badu’s album is actually an even bolder, more ferociously weird record than that one.
The expressive modes of Baduizm and Mama’s Gun are both gone here, as this record is neither terribly abstract nor straightforward; rather, this is an eerily prophetic album, with Badu sounding at times like a high priestess in some weird, fortune-telling trance as she sings about poverty and war, drug abuse and death. It’s an album that’s explicitly of the moment, and defiantly transcendent at the same time– an astonishingly complex and sophisticated work of personal expression that’s also universal; here, the artist’s role as a cultural critic and truth-teller merges flawlessly with her role as a poet and a human being. Moreover, it belongs on a very short list of albums that actually seem to have a perspective-widening, heart-enlarging effect on the listener– or at least on this listener: It’s a work of compassion that goes beyond profound and becomes really, truly vital.
The music? Aw, hell. It’s so far out there I’m not sure if words will suffice, but in short: It’s the most hip-hop thing she’s ever done, though it belongs just as much to spacey electric funk and acid jazz and weird, gritty R&B. More than anything, it’s tough– a very difficult listen not because the beats are inaccessible, but because they’re unrelenting and inviting at the same time, making the sadness and fury of the lyrics even more difficult to bear. I’m glad Badu included the sweet, spunky love song “Honey” as a bonus track at the end of the album– it doesn’t quite fit with the fabric of the rest of the album, but it’s a moment of real joy that provides a needed respite at album’s end.
Supposedly, part 2 is due this Fall, with a possible third installment on the way next year. Of course, both are immediately at the top of my most-anticipated list. But I’ll be genuinely gobsmacked if Badu can top this revelatory work. For me, it’s a landmark recording. It moves my feet and challenges my mind and my ears in startling new ways, but more than that, it stirs my soul.
Hmmm. Soul music. Maybe that’s what I’ll call it.