If nothing else, Erykah Badu knows how to get a rise out of people.
Beginning with her sophomore studio effort, 2000’s “Mama’s Gun,” Badu’s music has had a polarizing effect on her followers. I still remember how I came to own a copy of the album: My cousin came to visit and had it in her car. I asked what she thought about it and quick as a flash she said, “I hate it. You can have it if you want it.” So, I happily took the record home and popped it in, only to find that I shared my cousin’s sentiment. (Mind you, I got really pissed when I discovered that the banging radio version of “Bag Lady” was not included on the album and I had to go buy the CD single.) In my mind, “Gun” was to “Baduizm” what Maxwell’s “Embrya” was to “Urban Hang Suite” – a muddled, aimless shot at obtaining a new level of artistic credibility. Too many ’70s soul shadings and too few developed ideas, I thought.
But as is the case with a lot of art, time changed my point of view and I came to appreciate the record’s grace and beauty. It really is a masterwork. And while I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ve always questioned the authenticity of Badu’s “Earth mama” persona, there’s no denying the potency of her musical vision. She would continue her unique brand of evolution on 2003’s “Worldwide Underground,” an “EP” that expanded her exploration into odd musical blends and fueled more debate among fans. By late 2007, Badu’s disciples were missing her terribly (though she stayed in steady contact with folks via the Internet, live shows and the occasional interview) and wanted some new product.
Enter “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” and its lead single, “Honey.”
I waited a bit to dig into it, partly because I love to see how listeners absorb Badu’s work. Considering the trajectory of Badu’s recorded output, the observations of some of my friends and associates regarding the album have been interesting to say the least. Some love it (“It’s straight fiyah – Badu did her thing”), while others act as if they are downright appalled by what they heard (“Fuck her – I won’t be buying part two or anything else till she makes some real music”). I expected the former response, as those of us who stan for certain artists will eat up whatever they do. The latter stance, however, shocked me a bit. I thought by now anybody who put down their 10 bucks for a Badu joint understood one thing: It will likely take more than one listen to start feeling the material.
I guess there are still some who haven’t gotten the memo.
Despite what some of the haters say, I’m actually feeling it. Unlike a lot of what’s been flooding the market over the last year or two, this is an album you have to listen to. That’s right, listen. This is put your headphones on, get in the zone shit, the sort of thing that requires your undivided attention. Things got off to a peculiar start with the odd yet engaging “Amerykahn Promise,” which sounds like it came straight out of one of Rudy Ray Moore’s “Dolemite” flicks. A superbad soul brother promises “More action, more excitement, more everything!” in the first seconds of the track, and what follows is just that. While I’m still internalizing a lot of the lyrical content of the album, an immediate impact was definitely made. It’s weird and beautiful all at the same time, a bizarre work of loveliness.
At its heart, the album is both confessional and political, with Badu’s musings on self and society wrapped in her trademark sonic melange. The sweetly melodic “Me” is a poignant look at womanhood (“My ass and legs have gotten thick/it’s all me”) and love and relationships (“Had two babies different dudes/and for them both my love was true”), while the insistent “Solider” is an unapologetic call to arms in which, among other things, Badu shouts out those “baptised when the levees broke.” Over the course of cuts like “The Cell,” “That Hump” and “Master Teacher,” everything from the fractures of government to the faults of the black community are reflected upon with raw intensity. Amid a swirl of bottom-heavy grooves, hip-hop beats, bleeps and blips, Badu elevates self reflection and social commentary to new heights.
When you look at just how adventurous the album is, the wave of negative feedback it has generated is disappointing. My gut tells me the infectious lead single (and bonus track) “Honey” is to blame for at least some of the backlash. A sunny, radio-ready slice of soul buoyed by a fly video that captures Badu recreating album covers of classic soul artists, the song likely roped casual listeners into thinking the album would follow a similar pattern. So I suspect a lot of folks set themselves up for a letdown right from the start.
That’s unfortunate, because the thoughts and feelings housed in the album’s grooves are more than worthy of a critical listen. And if any of those taking such a harsh look at the album took time to dig into the singer’s wildly colored past, none of what passed before their ears would have soured their experience. Simply put, the album is an exercise in not one, but two things: being aware of where an artist is coming from and opening your mind to a new musical exercise.
Like a lot of life’s sweetest treats, ‘New Amerykah’ is an acquired taste – a rich excursion into neo-psychedelia that takes a bit of time to digest. It’s just a shame more people aren’t up to the challenge.