CD Review of New AmErykah Part One by Erykah Badu
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Label
4th World War/Universal Motown
Erykah Badu:
New AmErykah Part One

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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T
he running gag about Erykah Badu is that she’s as batty as she is talented, but you can’t fault her for her ambition – New AmErykah Part One is, as its title implies, the first installment of a planned series. Badu has promised to follow up Part One with at least one sequel this year, and plans to use the AmErykah albums to, in her words, “talk for my race and my planet.” For R&B fans who have lamented the genre’s slow drift away from social consciousness over the last several decades, these are magic words – particularly if Badu ultimately proves herself able to deliver.

Of course, the fact that 4th World War is part of a whole makes it difficult to judge on its own merits – but what the hell, that’s the way Badu released it, so we’ll just do what we can.

You’d expect an album that makes this many promises to be as interesting behind the scenes as it is between the ears, and 4th World War does not disappoint: Badu has assembled a wild patchwork quilt of collaborators for these tracks, including jazz vibraphone legend Roy Ayers, in-demand hip-hop producer/recording artist Madlib, and longtime cohorts such as Karriem Riggins and Amir “?uestlove” Thompson. It’s an eclectic record, in other words, one that draws on a wide variety of R&B, soul, and hip-hop influences and traditions. It should also go without saying that the album is sort of a mess – an occasionally brilliant mess, but a mess all the same.

Erykah Badu

Unlike a lot of modern albums – in any genre – AmErykah actually rolls uphill; Badu seems to have frontloaded the track listing with some of the more impenetrable cuts. In fact, listening to the leadoff track, the Ayers-produced “AmErykahn Promise,” you might worry that you’re in for a long session of quirky “characters” and between-song skits; thankfully, this turns out not to be the case. In fact, at 10 songs (plus the hidden track/leadoff single, “Honey”), AmErykah balances its unwieldiness with economy – as much as you might have to struggle to get your head around what’s going on between the grooves, Badu had the good sense to keep the album trimmed down to a manageable size. The whole thing is done in under an hour.

And what an hour it is. Anyone who wants to think of Badu as kooky will find no shortage of additional reasons for doing so while listening to the minor-key doodling that bogs down chunks of the record, but if you care to listen a little deeper, you’ll get some tantalizing glimpses at what could end up being one of the more impressive achievements in modern R&B – “My People,” “Soldier 7,” and “The Cell,” in particular, hearken back to classics like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. That’s strong praise, especially considering how inconsistent AmErykah really is, but when Badu lands her punches, they’re deeply felt. Taken on its own merits, the album will likely be too difficult for many listeners to bother connecting with – there’s a reason Universal has released the unlisted bonus track as the first single – but depending on what else she’s got up her sleeve, the series as a whole could very well go down as the biggest achievement of Erykah Badu’s career.

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