Erykah Badu, “New AmErykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War” (Motown) [4 STARS]
After a flurry of critically and commercially popular debuts -- Erykah Badu’s “Baduizm” (1997) and D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” (1995) chief among them -- the so-called “neo-soul” movement of the late ’90s sputtered out all too quickly in the face of the continued dominance of sonically slick, politically bankrupt R&B by the likes of Robert S. Kelly. Fans are still waiting for D’Angelo to release his third album, a follow-up to the dense, dark brilliance of “Voodoo” (2000), and with only one sketchy EP to her credit in the last eight years, it was all too easy to believe that Badu was retiring from music to concentrate on raising her children and practicing the New Age healing techniques of Reiki. Now, with her third proper studio album, Badu has given us the sinister and complex masterpiece we’ve long been expecting from D’Angelo.
With the exception of the sunny single “Honey,” included as a bonus track, this is a dramatically different Badu: Sure, there were hints of troubling shadows at the edges of the sunny spirituality circa “Mama’s Gun” (2000). But here, on the first of what is said to be a pair of albums coming this year, the singer takes an unstinting look at the harsh realities of a world where hip-hop is more powerful than god or government (“The Healer”), where black-on-black crime destroys the community (“Soldier”) and where drugs enslave buyers and sellers alike (“That Hump,” “The Cell”). The artist’s answer for coping in such a world isn’t some slippery, ethereal belief system, but one of the oldest tenets of the American philosophy: self-reliance.
“Sometimes I don’t know what to say/So many leaders to obey/But I was born on Savior’s Day/So I chose me,” Badu sings.
This is heady stuff indeed, but the sophistication of the music more than matches the concepts. Showing more vocal range than she’d ever hinted possible in the past, the former Erica Wright of Dallas alternately soars and growls or moans and rejoices through hypnotic, subtly shifting grooves crafted by Madlib, Sa-Ra and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and incorporating hints of transcendent gospel, down-and-dirty funk, old-school soul, cutting-edge hip-hop and even easy-listening jazz. Think of George Clinton or Curtis Mayfield working in New Orleans with a sampler and the most diverse bands of their careers, and you’ll still only be half way there.
Like “Voodoo,” “New AmErykah, Pt. 1” is by no means an easy listen. But it is one that will reward every minute spent with it, and which is certain to only grow more profound as its complex layers continue to reveal themselves.