28 June 2009

Record Review: Erykah Badu- "New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" [2008]

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Have you ever heard this album? Have you ever listened to this shit? New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) is without a doubt the best funk album released this decade, and one of my favorites ever by anyone. I like this album more than any other Erykah Badu album, and I really, really love her records. I like this album more than The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I like it as much as I like all my Sly & the Family Stone albums. It's right next to the Ohio Players' Gold, Funkadelic's Maggot Brain and Michael Jackson's epic Off the Wall. Listen to this album.

Why? Erykah Badu is a fucking presence, that's why. She's got a layered, eccentric, "hot" voice that really compliments her material that is always at turns brilliant, twisted, bizarre, messy, strange, drop-dead beautiful and always interesting. So sometimes a record is great because of one of any number of elements, but Amerykah succeeds by being a triumph of nearly every one imaginable- craft, songwriting, musicianship, tone, production- whatever. This is an amazing sounding record, coming at you from so many angles, succeeding with every new, fresh, exciting idea she tackles.

Recorded at the end of 2006 at Electric Lady on 8th St. between MacDougal and 6th Avenue in New York City, the album debuted in the early part of 2008. Though Badu has primary writing and production credit, she works here with a wide range of collaborators, including Madlib and 9th Wonder. She more or less split the all of the instrumental work with Om'Mas Keith (Sa-Ra, Jill Scott, Jurassic 5)- the entire album has a more organic, jammy vibe than most of her work- think more Fela Kuti than James Brown.

I'll be honest too and say that I sort of like wondering if this girl is completely off her tree. Her lyrics are all over the place, but in the best way- stoned out imagery, mystical, overtly sexual, drug-obsessed (that totally insane a cappella outro to "The Cell" that just never stops and keeps repeating), at times mildly political- but only the variety that seems part of the redirected portion of the "make the personal, political" mantra. I also really love militant black power lyrics (probably a stretch to call anything here that, but her Farrakhan mention made me remember this)- not necessarily because it engages me on a political or social level really, but for a couple other reasons. Firstly, it's a tie to the past- hip hop has a strong arm on it's family tree for topics such as this- Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, countless others. That, on an aesthetic level, is a positive for me.

I also think it says something about an artist. By and large, those are sentiments people really aren't feeling right now- or at least, it feels like an atmosphere where thoughts and ideas like that are ripe for being torn from their context and vilified. For better or worse, it's a different atmosphere. But her saying it anyway- well, she's someone who'll say a lot of things, I think. Erykah Badu really has some fucking guts, and you can tell it when she sings, when she performs, and when she comes out with new albums. It's all over. I don't think you can fake that. Hip hop has become an epic financial and material dick-measuring contest, so anything innately personal is refreshing and, unfortunately, tends to stick out. By all rights she should probably be an underground artist, but she's not. Why? The presence, that's why!

The record starts with "Amerykahn Promise," a wide open hippie funk jam that owes debts to Sly & the Family Stone, Sun Ra and some classic James Brown. It is that classic R&B/ hip hop "intro track", a swinging jam that sets a tone and doesn't really set out to do too much. I've always thought this was one of hip hop's strengths (even as, eventually, it grew to be a crutch and part of it's bloated death), the way so many of the early artists began approaching albums almost more like movies than traditional "song collections." The skits, the themes, the introductions, the big coda songs. They're big entertainment vehicles, maxing out every single available bit of space such a thing could possibly occupy. Obviously this idea originated in large part with Thriller, but the finer point was put on it by albums like Three Feet High and Rising and Fear of a Black Planet. The song has a great chunky, organ-y rhythm to it, but it's like the sound is a ghost. Like they all played along to the track and then took it off the final mix. The song is bookended with the Wu-style kung fu sample, and ends with that Prince-inspired completely bizarre Five Percenter spoken word stuff- wondering in a computer voice about her "42 Laws," and opining that the answer she's given "isn't science." Yeah.

"Soldier" is more classic Erykah- the frenetic, fanatic edges worn down, but commanding just the same. The lyrics as they start are a little "inner city kids" boilerplate, but it evolves into this call-and-repeat epic about what seems like an intellectual or, at least, social Black Separatism. She's not letting anyone off the bandwagon, either.

And if you think about turning back
I got that shotgun on ya back
Said if you think about turning back
I got that shotgun on ya back

Reads like a Western. It was released only as a promo single after "Honey," which was the First Single From the Album. Regardless- I'm pointing it out because I really think it's her best vocal performance on record. She sounds unreal on this song. Unreal.

"Soldier" aside, any great funk album should be, on some level, a challenge. The great ones are almost like bouts of exercise- they exude sweat and pace and endurance. They've always been sex on wax. So, it follows that any great funk record worth it's salt has a few songs that break the six-minute line. James Brown's late career classic The Payback has an average tune time of over nine minutes!

New Amerykah is every bit a success on that level, as well (three songs six-minutes plus!). It's a breathless amalgamation of sounds and noise and ideas and they all seem to cohere to that opening tone laid down by "Amerykahn Promise." She's sliding along a scale from her more eccentric, out-there observations and translations (the sound collage at the end of "The Twinkle" sounds like something that could have come from the nexus of a "High Times"/ ComicCon Venn diagram) to her more basic, direct, soul/ R&B roots. I love the tension that seems to exist among many great records- the way Neil Young is able to balance his many different faces on Rust Never Sleeps or the back and forth from mindfuck to twee pop on The Velvet's White Light/ White Heat. There's something about a musician torn between those two places: the marketplace and the darkest corner of a recording studio. This is unquestionably one of those sorts of albums. I think what ultimately makes them such fascinating single statements is the way they all deal with the tension, which seems to be to swing wildly from one end to the other- tempering the flaring, jarring pet sounds closest to their hearts with the broad, unifying sounds that speak to a more "convenient" but real gift.

Sometimes there are albums, like, say the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady, that are great because every single second is packed with harmonic bliss. They're really full collections of really fulfilling songs. This is not what Amerykah is. Amerykah is a full-volume piece of work, a traffic jam of sounds that need to be taken in sum and not out of context or, really, as eleven independent states. Though they're asked to do so on occasion, in their ideal state they don't exist independent from their brothers and sisters, and instead feed off of and support one another to create a larger, more powerful whole.

A new Amerykah. Get it?

Here's a version of "Soldier" performed live on VH1:

ps- Erykah sat in with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon on Friday and mentioned that she was currently in the studio working on New Amerykah Part Two, which is fucking exciting.


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