ERYKAH BADU: ‘New Amerykah’ (Label: Universal Motown)

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ERYKAH BADU: 'New Amerykah'

Sadly, Erykah Badu’s career has quite never lived up to the promise of her groundbreaking 1997 debut album, ‘Baduism.’ Steeped in a mixture of antique Billie Holiday records, new age mysticism and tripped-out hip-hop, ‘Baduism’ – along with D’Angelo’s ‘Brown Sugar’ and Maxwell’s ‘Urban Hang Suite’ from the same timeframe – helped set the whole neo-soul movement in motion. The album also spawned a host of Badu-inspired acolytes, including Philly soul-poet, Jill Scott, who has undoubtedly been the most successful of the idiosyncratic Texas singer’s musical offspring. After ‘Baduism’ established her as one of the most original voices in black music, the singer born Erica Wright in 1971 released two further studio albums – 2000’s ‘Mama’s Gun’ and 2003’s ‘Worldwide Underground.’ Although they went platinum and gold respectively in the States, they didn’t – at least to my mind – have the appeal and attractiveness that characterised her debut. This new opus – only Badu’s fifth long player – is a typically eclectic, and sometimes inscrutable, even self-indulgent, affair. It’s intended, I think, as a satirical swipe at Uncle Sam and sub-titled ‘Part One (4th World War)’ – supposedly it’s going to be followed up by a second instalment (‘Part Two – Return Of The Ankh’) later in the year. The brilliant, eye-catching cover is reminiscent of an old Funkadelic LP – and the CD booklet, too, is packed with bizarre illustrations and striking surrealist-style images accompanying Badu’s often opaque lyrics. As for the music, well it’s typical Erykah Badu – a sprawling, unpredictable melange of incantatory soul, jazz inflections, hip-hop attitude and R&B flavours. The funk-fuelled opening cut, ‘Amerykahn Promise’ is basically Badu and friends dropping a few spoken vocals over the 1977 Roy Ayers-produced RAMP track, ‘American Promise.’ By contrast, ‘The Healer,’ is an otherworldly piece with chanted vocals and minimal instrumentation (mostly percussion) that examines the intersection of hip-hop culture with the rest of the world. The hypnotic ‘My People’ is in a similar spaced-out vein. Much more direct is ‘Soldier,’ a haunting tune with a throbbing backbeat, and the lovely, jazz-infused ‘Me,’ with its lazy, summer-vibed groove. There’s a harder, more aggressive edge to a brilliant track called ‘The Cell,’ where jagged pieces of fractured sci-fi funk beats underpin Badu singing about the destructiveness of drugs. Other highlights include ‘Twinkle,’ ‘That Hump’ – a sensuous mid-tempo ballad with horn seasoning – and ‘Telephone.’ There are a couple of bonus cuts – ‘Real Thing’ and the infectious single, ‘Honey.’ Like the last two Badu albums, ‘New Amerykah’ takes time to get into – but after a couple of listens, I guarantee you’ll be hooked. And that’s a promise.
(CW) 4/5