What’s the freakquency, Erykah? The five years since her last album, Worldwide Underground (make that last EP, so more like eight years since her last proper album), make clear that her release frequency lags about as far behind as you could expect from a one-woman jam band at the forefront of a head collective. But the freakquency? That’s pitched as high as a kite, now more than ever. Badu’s intense New AmErykah: Part One (4th World War), the opening salvo of a promised two-disc series (three if you count a live album Universal is promising in late 2008), is as sonically ambitious as anything she’s done to date. It’s sort of the flip to Worldwide Underground in that both albums are so diffuse as to seem careless and haphazard to some listeners. But whereas the earlier album maintained a laidback, even keel (held together under the influence of the Mizell brothers), New AmErykah is some cracked, urgent, just plain weird boho avant shit. Worldwide Underground was Parliament. New AmErykah is Funkadelic.
Assisted by producers Madlib, 9th Wonder, Mike “Chav” Chavarria, and posthumously, J Dilla, the album’s very existence as an incomplete piece of a larger project is, at least for the next few months, a brazen continuation of Badu’s “rough draft” ethos, which first started to really emerge with Mama’s Gun and the conflicting tracklists and unfinished lyrics in the liner notes. Not unlike Mary J. Blige, Badu the vocalist exudes so much confidence and authority that she almost seems to overemphasize her improvisational persona. Blige has her bipolar relapses, Badu has her pot-addled “What was I saying again?” disorganization. Both are, to a degree, calculated in an attempt to cultivate a measure of realness. In the same sense that I’d rather watch the stripped-down meta of recent Abbas Kiarostami films more than heart-to-heart interviews on Oprah, I’d much rather tolerate Badu’s occasionally overbaked—yeah, I went there—mental mélange more than Blige recreating Julianne Moore’s mirror monologue from Safe. And I say that as someone who just argued with one of this publication’s other music critics that any lyrics more complicated than “Hey, yeah you, get out on the floor” had no place in dance music.
Still, as is often the case, an artist who gives off the impression that they’re working with less than a full deck usually gives listeners more to chew. Typically I’ll listen to an album once or twice before I write a review. I’m sort of a strict sensualist when it comes to music, and hence perhaps put too much trust in the initial rush of pop music and much too little stock in lyrics. (Which, lets face it, is not exactly hard to do when the cultural standard rhymes “The boys they want to sex me” with “They say I’m really sexy.”) I’ve listened to New AmErykah at least seven times already and still feel as though I’m jumping mama’s gun by even writing about it before giving it another seven listens. Badu’s spare, pointillist lyrics are almost constantly folded deep within dense, heavy arrangements.
“The Cell,” a ruthless, steely hard-bop sprint, contains a lot of menacing lyrics about “shots from the po-po” and a howling refrain of “We’re not well,” but the subtext barely registers against the wild, walking bassline and decaying guitar riff. Which, of course, actually makes the song all the more terrifying. And it’s in good company with the boiling terror of “Twinkle” and the uncompromising spareness of the toy-xylophone ode to hip-hop “The Healer” (a track given a once-over with an auto-equalizer effect, just to make it sound even more like an unfinished demo). Lest the ominous elements run rampant enough to actually constitute a “statement,” which would run counter to the album’s real statement of not actually having one, Badu also throws in a few tracks that would’ve slotted easily into either Worldwide Underground (“Honey”) or Mama’s Gun (the flute-laden “Soldier,” with its election year-friendly shout-outs to the troops “in Iraqi fields” and those in New Orleans “baptized when the levee broke”). While neither “Honey” nor “Soldier” are lazy retreads on Badu’s part, is it any wonder their familiar elements inspired Motown to make those two songs (both far sunnier in isolation than the album as a whole) the album’s first two singles?
“What if there were no niggas, only master teachers?” is the rhetorical question asked of peer musicians multiple times in the sweeping, swangin’ dirge “Master Teacher,” which Badu answers with “I’m in the search of something new.” It’s not even the line itself that suggests Badu’s mission to brush aside the staid quality of current R&B so much as her risky, raw vocal delivery. (The Billie Holiday voice is back, if only for a little while.) And it’s in line with the willful disorganization of this and her last two albums. Polish and coherence equal consumer-ready product, to be used until played out and then shelved. In a matter not entirely original but still befitting an ex-neo-soul diva getting extra comfortable with her inner Yippie, she overlays a rerecorded excerpt of Peter Finch’s “First you’ve got to get mad” monologue from Network. Somewhere Marlene Warfield’s afro-puffed corporate radical Laureen Hobbs is listening to this record and nodding, “Right on.”