Dean Van Nguyen
posted on March 26, 2008 04:09
Review of the album 'New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)' by Erykah Badu
Review Snapshot: Soul Queen Erykah Badu attempts to tackle black America's political woes and social ills as well as jump start the genre with an ambitious prog-soul disc, the first in a two part series. In the world of iTunes and .99c tracks, this is an old fashioned album harking back memories of Curtis Mayfield leading the listener to realise that the more the world changes, the more the problems remain the same.
The Cluas Verdict? 7 out of 10
If anyone looks uncomfortable in the era they were born its Erykah Badu. She remains so firmly routed in the 70s her records sound like uncovered gems from back in the day, before R&B’s soulful grooves were replaced radio friendly, bass heavy club anthems. In a world where being an R&B artist usually means you’re black and you sing pop songs, singers who display that indescribable characteristic “soul” are so rare today that when one is discovered they are revered.
So at one end of the spectrum you have Rihanna with her bubblegum gimmick R&B, and then at the opposite end of the there is Badu, who is gifted with many of the attributes that made the 70s such a golden age for soul music. Blessed with a voice comparable to Billie Holiday, and the desire to make smart music like Curtis Mayfield, Badu is reaching for the sort of greatness those artists achieved by releasing two albums this year that promise to unflinchingly tackle social and political issues in America. Staying true to her “analogue girl in a digital world” persona, 'New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)' is an old fashioned, ambitious neo-soul record working best when judged as an album than any individual tracks. Even connoisseurs of the genre will need patience to fully enjoy this record, as it takes multiple listens to unravel its complexities and absorb its messages.
'New Amerykah Part One' is cinematic in scope and dripped in all the nostalgia of a seventies Blaxploitation flick right down to the authentic sounding record scratches. Opener “Amerykahn Promise” alone sounds like it has been plucked straight from a Pam Grier movie with its funked up “wah-wah” guitars, blustery horns and a deepened Prince-esque narration thrown in for good measure. Equally the anti-drugs tale “The Cell” brings to mind images of pushers, pimps, afros and bellbottoms. The throwback production is provided by established alt-hip hop producers such as Madlib and James Poyser, the former providing the albums most delicate, spooky beats which establish a light canvas for Badu to flood with colour and make no mistake, she is an exceptional singer. Dark, yet playful, she soulfully skips on top of the music which treads the lines of different classic soul genres.
Badu doesn’t do fluff, and each track here weighs in with a pretty hefty message, striking a good balance between personal and political. For example on the Madlib produced ‘The Healer’ Badu declares “Hip Hop is bigger than religion”, bringing back memories of John Lennon’s misunderstood statement that compared his band to Jesus. It’s an almost polar opposite approach to a soul record than say the classic Motown sounding Soul-Pop of Amy Winehouse. ‘Me’ is an autobiographical track where Badu lays out her concerns issues like ageing and body image for all to hear in a refreshingly honest way.
‘Telephone’ is a tribute to the late J Dilla. Inspired by stories told by his mother, it’s the most moving song about the life of the popular producer to date. Elsewhere ‘Soldier’ charts a young man dealing drugs on the street and ‘Twinkle’ touches on a range of U.S. failings like health and education.
In fact so heavy here is the content that Badu could only find room for the sweeter single “Honey” as a bonus track, which makes a welcomed cameo after the seriousness that has preceded it. It's as if she was too full of ideas and opinions to include it in the main track listings, which is the biggest problem with 'New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)'. Try as she might Badu can’t address the whole world’s problems on one record, but she sure gives it a good try. She’ll have another chance with Part Two which is scheduled for a July release. Although whether she can stretch the concept onto another disc remains to be seen but, being modern soul’s premier artist, her message will always have an audience.
Dean Van Nguyen