she contains multitudes

In all of mainstream R&B, no one can claim to be an artist in the same way that Erykah Badu can. Take a broader look at the genre, and you’ll find peers but no betters. New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War is the best album of 2008, and if Badu’s promised trilogy is executed as deftly, she will have unequivocally established her musical genius. But if the the next two albums fizzle, we’ll still have this undeniable gem.

New Amerykah
is a difficult album, especially in the context of neo-soul. This is a genre that emphasizes powerful, immediate vocal hooks. But Badu’s singing is understated and imperfect; she never belts or jumps octaves or slams home a chorus. Often the best hooks, vocal and instrumental, get buried under whining electronica, rumbling beats, layers of voices. The production is incredibly dense, full of melodic squiggles and noisy digressions. Rather than being an album of hooks, this is an album where melody plays a secondary role, filling out spacious compositions that are ultimately structured by their deep grooves. On first listen, many of the tracks will feel incomplete and overly abstract. When the pieces eventually click together, though, the effect is transcendent. To its credit, the album still manages to be compelling from the first listen, because Badu and her producers have mastered the trick to the best avant-pop from Funkadelic to Radiohead: making the ambient sound urgent.

But what makes this album truly special is its emotional and lyrical content. It’s a spiritual album that shuns the assured gospel cliches that characterize most R&B. Instead, it accomplishes it’s spiritual agenda through oblique mysticism and deep introspection. It’s also a political album that doesn’t mind being topical (see “The Cell”). Without question, though, Badu’s statements resonate most when she combines both impulses. Over an ebullient soul riff, “Me” gives the promised introspection, with Badu vamping about getting dumped, gaining weight, and finding faith. But she also runs through her mother’s biography, and shouts out a hard-to-love member of her community: “I salute you Farrakahn / because you are me.” Badu can’t sing about herself without singing about Louis or her mom because, “all are one.” This conceit, developed in other excellent tracks like “The Healer”, “My People”, and “Master Teacher”,  is the key to the album’s power. By identifying herself broadly with black America, Badu can allow the spiritual-introspective aspect of her art to blend into and play off of its social-observational dimension. The album’s themes of healing and overcoming are developed in both an outward-looking and inward-looking mode. The result is a powerful artistic statement about transformation, about achieving wholeness through love, that applies just as deeply to a divided nation, a beleaguered community, and an artist coming into her middle age with a long roster of victories and heartbreaks to square with.

On every track, New Amerykah makes the case for Badu’s ascension to the upper eschelon of black popular artists. That’s not to say that she does not compete with the best non-black musicians of our time. She does. But the canon in which New Amerykah makes most sense is by and large a black canon: popular art that is both broadly social and broadly spritual in outlook. This is especially true in popular music, where There’s a Riot Goin’ On, What’s Going On, Innervisions, and Sign ‘O’ the Times come to mind as touchstones, but the works of James Baldwin and Randall Kenan in letters, and of Spike Lee in film, display a similar sensibility. Badu has a reached such a level of confidence and technical skill that it is easier to discuss her work in terms of this legacy than in comparison to what her musical contemporaries are doing. She has emerged from a prolonged silence at a new phase in her career, one which is as exciting as anything being done in popular music.

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~ by staticandme on January 1, 2009.

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