When Erykah Badu first exploded into the mainstream in 1997 with her debut album, Baduizm, she had a style so distinct that it was classifiable only in fumbling terms. Her bluesy songs and videos evoked the past—early reviews mentioned everyone from Billie Holiday to Diana Ross—but the album’s hip-hop beats, not to mention Badu’s regal earth-goddess demeanor and rise-above message, placed it squarely in the present day. It was an infectious mix, and Baduizm went on to become a smash commercial success, as did a live album released that same year. They went triple and double platinum, respectively.
Cut to the present: In the five years since Badu last put out an album (the seemingly tossed-off, uncommercial Worldwide Underground), she’s been eschewing the industry life in favor of spending time at home with her two kids as well as running her own clothing line and producing theater. Upon her return to making her own albums, she finds the sonic landscape blooming with soulful acts—Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones, Ledisi—who’ve upped the bar on idiosyncratic mystique. So when Badu recently dribbled out a bland new single, it seemed as if she were content to wallow in the sad no-man’s-land of forgettable R&B. The song was even called “Honey,” as if to emphasize its syrupy quasi goodness.
The single, it turns out, is not at all representative of the album, merely a poppy precursor to the avalanche of willfully weird, helter-skelter sounds that populate New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) the first of several releases she has planned for 2008. It’s a whacked-out ride from start to finish, a musical trip that will have you scratching your head if you’re anticipating the sorts of soul-sister meditations that first made Badu famous—or even if all you’re expecting is a conventional album that takes you from song to song with any sense of cohesion or clarity. The action starts off strong with the high-energy “Amerykahn Promise,” a disco-funk party anthem of the kind that filmmakers use when emphasizing the more likable aspects of cartoonish pimps. Next comes a song dedicated to the late hip-hop experimentalist J Dilla called “The Healer”—an instant hit if ever there was one—which brilliantly fuses Madlib’s doom-and-gloom production work with an eerie, alienated delivery by Badu and assorted chants and chimes that would be distracting if the song weren’t so perfectly cast.
After that, the proceedings grow markedly stranger. On her album from 2000, Mama’s Gun, Badu sang, “What good do your words do / If they can’t understand you?,” a piece of good, if obvious, advice that she has apparently decided to ignore on this album. On many of the songs here, her lyrics are impenetrable, sometimes off-puttingly so—unless you happened to be well versed in Badu’s spoken-word scats, like “throwing fire,” “staying woke,” and “shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang.” The songs are all curious amalgams, veering off on densely arranged, trippy tangents or sometimes devolving into frothy elevator-music croon sessions. The album’s multiple personalities occasionally manifest themselves within the span of a single song, like catchy, stuttering “Twinkle,” which devolves halfway through into a hodgepodge of chanting and cosmic ululations.
What has always been lovable about Badu is her eccentricity, a trait that is not confined to her work. Badu’s life has long read like a study in extremes: She splits her time between Brooklyn and its polar opposite, Dallas; she shaves her head before reappearing with a three-foot Afro; and she remarked on her fondness for Palestinian rap while on a peace mission to Israel. So it’s hardly shocking that on New Amerykah she has abandoned her trademark sound in favor of an uncanny, oddball work more along the lines of dubby, druggy hip-hop than anything resembling neo-soul. It’s a gamble that probably won’t pay off in terms of commercial success, but who cares? Does anyone even keep track of record sales anymore? Badu has rejected the role of soul princess and chosen instead to embrace a raw, unhinged spirituality that separates her from the pack.