Wednesday, June 12, 2013

ERYKAH BADU: New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) "Because she's self-righteous and she sucks." That's how someone once tried to explain it to me. By "it" I mean this rather unfamiliar concept of not liking Erykah Badu. What series of embittering personal tragedies have to befall someone before that person is incapable of liking Erykah Badu? And, anyway, what's this "self-righteous" business? Isn't calling someone self-righteous just a way to shame that person for believing in things? This is why people can love the Smiths but hate U2. There's an earnestness-threshold across which musicians transgress at their own peril. Your credibility vanishes when your irony does, I guess. But who needs credibility? When you make music, or art of any kind, you can find ways to get away with being preachy. That is, you can have a message without sacrificing the quality of your art. You might sacrifice your hipness-cred or your cool, but you don't need those things. Lou Reed and The Strokes can have them.

And why NOT preach? There are things, often uncomfortable things, people might need to hear. (I'm referring here to things beyond the usual pop-music tropes like "Baby, let's have sex," and "We're gonna party tonight," and "You broke my heart and now I'm drunk'n'sad," and "Let's stick it to the man with our guitars but never define who 'the man' is, exactly, because really, we work for him".) We live in a tangled mess of frayed wires and sometimes we are implicated in the things that, when we proclaim our senses of righteous indignation, we oppose with no dearth of rage. Sometimes what we're shouting down is also what we're standing on. It's not fun to hunker down and think on this kind of stuff, though.

Your dog won't take his medicine unless you wrap it in bacon, right? So artists can wrap those uncomfortable thoughts and observations in bacon. Yeah, the jaded and the cool will fling their noses skyward no matter how flavorful your aesthetic vessel is, but screw 'em. Shake the dust from your shoes. A prophet is never respected in the prophet's own town, nor is a prophet respected in trendy music 'zines.

Erykah Badu probably isn't a prophet, but she has a unique and idiosyncratic worldview worth listening to. I think you should discover it on your own and (if you feel so compelled) think on the bitter pill she's giving you here. It's my job to sell you on the bacon. 

"Here" is her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One. There is a Part Two, but you should start here. (Numerical order, silly.) 4th Wold War is one of those album-length artistic statements people generally associate with the era of Pink Floyd and Yes. Maybe Frank Zappa is a better comparison. Like Zappa's virtuoso, fun-house quirk, Badu creates her own world here. If you've heard any of her music before, you know already that her voice is a versatile instrument employed with a ferocious sense of play. It's the kind of instrument that can get lost in tepid musical settings. Thankfully, Erykah Badu has consistently avoided the lazy backslide into neo-soul cliches that could have made her a ready-for-primetime player.

Badu's plan of action here is apparent from the outset. This is a hip-hop/soul hybrid leaning confidently toward the former via sampling, references, and radical social consciousness. On the first track, RAMP's "American Promise" is sampled and mutated into "Amerykhan Promise", a surreal slab of theatrical funk, complete with pitch-shifted voices chattering in a battle of wills. (It's natural to be reminded of Parliament, here.)  This re-purposing continues throughout, in a series of hallucinatory underground hip-hop tracks.

Madlib (who should be pretty familiar to our regular readers) contributes two particularly great sample-deep tracks. "The Healer/Hip-Hop" lopes slow on a sample from Yamasuki's Le monde fabuleux des Yamasuki and "My People" is an interpretive scat cover of an Eddie Kendricks song. These beats are exactly the sort you might hear under a faded MF DOOM verse, but I love hearing them used by a singer instead of a rapper. In 2012, Madlib's productions would back up a soul singer for an entire album: Check out the terrific Seeds by Georgia Anne Muldrow, who also collaborates on one track here here. That track, "Master Teacher", is a rousing number, provocative not only in it's lyric, but also in it's bold sampling of a familiar voice. Curtis Mayfield is such an unassailable legend that it's kind of daring to use him the way he's used here. He's obviously recognizable and his voice is brutally chopped up into a hammering monosyllable. Conceptually, this might have something to do with a desire to continue Mayfield's project of spiritually charged calls for public action and shared responsibility. Musically, it's an odd and unrelenting earworm.

There's some dark territory here. "The Cell" and "Twinkle" are particularly menacing. The former charges and churns through a hell night of urban violence, and the latter is a trip through the wires of the Cyberbadu's assimilated robo-brain. Trust me on this. "Telephone" pays reverent tribute to Detroit's J Dilla, one of about 10,000 songs to do this. (Badu, whose awesome "Didn't Cha Know" was co-written and produced by Dilla, seems like someone in a meaningful position to pay respects, and her tribute is among the most sincere, along with "Can't Stop This" on the Roots' Game Theory).

The record ends with the secret ingredient "Honey", which lightens the mood with a buoyant, hard-knocking beat and syncopated synth squelches. It's one of the stronger performances here, and definitely the most accessible song. You could view it as a cop-out unit-shifter, tacked on at the last minute as sales insurance, but I think it's fitting that the record ends with a sweet and playful love song. This is an album focused on the pestilences of racism, violence, drugs and death. It is not, however, a black-lipstick slog through a list of dark topics by a self-conscious Serious Artist. For all the time Badu spends pointing out (however obliquely) terrifying things in our world, she's no nihilist. These lyrics regularly suggest a potential for hope, or maybe a desperation for it. During "Soldier", Badu expresses solidarity with the victims of hurricane Katrina, the Nation of Islam, and anyone pushed around by corrupt police officers. This might sound cynical, but she assures us "If you think about turning back, I got the shotgun on your back" as if she's a 21st-Century Harriet Tubman. She won't let you give up. Man, a shotgun is a funny way to show love, but it makes perfect sense here. Cowardice is unacceptable.

This album is filled with dark corners, mystery and details that show themselves only on repeat listens. If the lyrics were gibberish, I'd still enjoy the hell out of it, but I'm glad that Erykah Badu is so willing to be principled and even "self-righteous".

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