Erykah Badu’s new single “Honey” is a catchy upbeat retro funk ditty which still manages to sound contemporary. It’s so joyful, no wonder it was picked as the lead-off single for her third studio album proper (though I felt her brilliant “Worldwide underground” was more than just an EP). However, those looking for more of the same on “New Amerykah part 1: World war 4″ (the first of a planned trilogy) will be sorely disappointed as nothing else on the CD sounds like it. Maybe that is why “Honey” gets tucked as a hidden track at the end of the CD.
Erykah is like the Radiohead of Soul music. After her introduction to the world on the multi platinum, multi Grammy winning “Baduizm”, she went off on a different tangent, largely eschewing regular song structure for loose but intricately structured musical movements, and cerebral, often indiscernible lyrics.
Her new 11 track CD is even more off kilter and uncommercial. It can best be described as a futuristic fusion of funk and jazz beamed from Mars, and I’m sure her record label Motown must have done the same head scratching it did ages ago when Marvin Gaye presented his magnum opus “What’s going on” for release. To fully appreciate it, one has to put aside expectations of regular song structure and just go with the flow.
Opening cut “Amerykhan promise” sounds like the soundtrack to some seventies blaxploitation movie with alternating male narration and female harmonies set to a funky bassline and interspersed with horns. One can almost see the women with their huge afros and platforms going “I promise, I promise”. “The healer/hip hop” has a haunting feel with chiming triangles, an echoing choir, and lyrics proclaiming hip hop to be “bigger than religion or the government”.
The autobiographical “Me” is one of the more straightforward sounding songs (sprawling and lacking a formal chorus, as does almost every other song); muted sax gently floating against a breezy seventies Marvin Gaye sound, and deeply personal lyrics like “Had two babies, different dudes/ and thought for both my love was true … hey, that’s me.”, ending in a vocals/sax duet.
“My people” is a hypnotic sounding song with a skeletal groove, gentle percussion, tribal sounding chants and sparse singing extorting black people to “keep on moving on”, with a brief Martin Luther King excerpt ending it. Another more easily accessible song is “Soldier” with rumbling hip hop beats, ghostly harmonising and lyrics touching on black on black violence, Katrina and other issues, while some male vocal exclaims “Uh” and “Hah” intermittently. “The cell” is jazz fusion with semi spoken lyrics touching on a “mama hopped up on cocaine” and ending acappella.
“Twinkle” rumbles along gently with skittery beats and a constant twinkling sound, electronic effects and disembodied harmonies, the final two or so minutes of the almost seven minutes is spent with some male voice telling us of the dire state of the times (after some strange voice speaking in what sounds somewhat like South African click, or is it a transmission from Mars??) against an eerie string backdrop. Talk about off kilter!
“Master teacher” is a woozy, psychedelic sounding groove which shifts tempo midway into a lilting piano sprinkled jazz piece with subtle electronic flourishes. “That hump” is a shimmery sounding midtempo song with a creeping bassline, a chorus of sorts, and a very nice horn sprinkled Motown-like bridge. The meandering eight minute long “Telephone” is a tribute to the late producer J Dilla. “Just fly away to heaven brother, make a place for me” she sings against a gently floating jazzy backdrop (dreamy harmonies, gentle hand percussion, and fleeting horns with muted hand claps coming in towards the final two minutes).
This CD might be bewildering at first, there is simply nothing else out there that sounds like it, but it is one that with time some will go, “Oh, now I get it!” while others never will. I see this making many end of year best album lists (it’s on mine already), as well as Ms Badu making some more room in her Grammy cabinet.
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