Debuting in 1997 with Baduizm, Erykah Badu was catapulted into the spotlight and dubbed queen of the neo-soul movement. It was a genre that found strengths within creative visions such as hers: artists presenting personalities miles deep, who were born of personal and spiritual struggle akin to their musical fore bearers, their music and voices serving as a means to work through what they had seen and what they were currently observing. They were certainly not seeking approval from anyone who didn't care to make connections to the representative life in their musics; they were not meant to be viewed as some wholesale musical commodity trend based on the fickle opinions of pointless tastemakers.
Erykah stood as one of the more unique figures, even courting her share of gossip and controversy. But Badu unfortunately began to suffer through a period of writer's block after the release of her sophomore record, Mama's Gun, resulting in the 2002-03 Frustrated Artist Tour. An EP, Worldwide Underground, followed the tour in advance of another four years of creative silence. Though certainly a time for hand-wringing for those who had found a spiritual musical ally, these dry spells are an inevitable reality faced when any artist begins the process of refocusing direction and statement. Now reinvigorated, creative deadlock firmly behind her, Badu returns elevated to a new level. She comes wielding a stronger voice in her social and spiritual observations, personal reflections and truths, which are never easy to confront or handle. No matter how unpleasant the personal burden of truth is, it necessitates being spoken and being heard.
Some initial reactions hastily declared New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) as "batshit crazy" or as an unfinished mess -- both unfortunate accusations. Embracing the album requires approaching it with chaos theory in mind. No matter how tangential and irrelevant segments may appear, they are born of the same foundation, the same woman's mind. Each moment and thread are rational extensions of the mental processes worked through to achieve a complete whole, filtered through a never-ending deluge of information and opinion that she, and ultimately we, are forced to process daily. Why should the works of a socially and politically conscious artist come across as any less chaotic than her surroundings? And why should an artist be condemned to mine the same theories repeatedly throughout her history? It becomes a greater declaration of our increasing inabilities to process complicated works than an indictment of the artist's critically declared "craziness."
New Amerykah finds Badu in never anything less than an inspired voice, straight from the Roy Ayers funk blast "Amerykahn Promise" to the sweet honey-drip memorial "Telephone" for J. Dilla. The sentiment she conveys in the latter, woven within the projection of a lyric as simple as, "Transition, time to fade," is not only beautiful, but humbling. "Soldier" finds her voice drawing into raspy intensity as she gives voice to those suffering under the oppression of money, drugs, and dirty cops, those serving in Iraq, those who suffered in the wake of Katrina, and the wake-up call of 9/11, all traveling across a Kareem Riggins beat accented by a loop of a flute interlude from Dutch symphonic prog group Solution's 1972 album Divergence.
What follows is a trio of songs equivalent to a heavenly ascent, each more profound than the last. Erykah shifts effortlessly from the low-slung groove of "The Cell," a lyrical lament about drug dependency, to the stutter beat-driven "Twinkle," bringing much needed textual light to the still ongoing plague of inequality. Whether or not you prescribe to her particular social, spiritual, or political beliefs, refuting their strength is ridiculous. Neglecting the reality of her observations and critiques is an even greater danger, especially in our modern social construct. Even stronger is the late-arriving focal piece "Master Teacher," which comes in two musical parts, asking the question "What if there was no niggas only master teachers?" followed by a proclamation of "I stay woke." The first half comes with a funked-out hip-hop strut, with guest vocalists Georgia Anne Muldrow and Bilal adding their dynamic vocal presence alongside Badu; the second half rolls out on soulful Fender Rhodes keys and a further lyric freestyled by, once again, the substantial talent Muldrow.
Meanwhile, Madlib's set of productions are stunning, forward-thinking, and blissfully sounding fresh, standing out even lined-up alongside the other eight strong pieces on the album. "The Healer," a track requiring fathoms as a unit of measure for its depth, is blinding. Rooted down with a chestplate rattling low-end hum -- and seriously, was that a chakra tuning fork chimed on that measured step? -- she channels like a prophet into every pulsation and static break, front to back. Voiced by "the healer" and "the children," it serves as a call for personal revitalization and by some turns a warning to the oppressor of the strengths of the united, which speaks to the vitality of hip-hop. "My People" is a mantra taking form in a simple vocal repetition of "Hold on, my people" beneath declarations of "Who wants to survive now," Eddie Kendricks samples, and what can only be described as an arpeggiated synthetic drip. It is devastatingly effective in its simplicity.
What is most impressive about New Amerykah is that Erykah simply breathes life into these tracks. Comparing it to endless, over-worked failures of pop and hip-hop music currently cluttering the airwaves and internet, its sense of spontaneity and purity becomes that much more apparent, no matter how composed the album may actually have been in production. Furthermore, Badu is surrounded by an immeasurably talented group of producers and players who accentuate her strengths rather than directing the attention to themselves. Most notable is previously mentioned Bilal, a vocalist who deserves yards more attention than he is currently being paid. Digressing however, this is Badu's moment, possibly her magnum opus if this "Part One" is any sign of the second installment to follow this summer. Is this duo of records going to be the pinnacle of her musical power? Kids can only hope, because if this is just the buildup to something greater, there won't be room left at the top for anyone but her when she finally hits her peak.