The long wait for Erykah Badu's latest is well worth it.
It's about time the gotdamn revolution began. And when I say revolution, I mean the release of Erykah Badu's long-awaited fourth album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). It came out last Tuesday (Badu's 37th birthday), and just as expected, it's an hour-long black fist raised high in the sky, with the occasional middle finger displayed for good measure.
But what's even more impressive is the roster of men Badu has called on to produce the album with her. It's a dream team of contemporary progressive black artists, the best possible individuals she could've called on to assist her in this project.
Let's break down what each producer provides Badu in this united state of Amerykah:
We start with the last track--the bonus track, interestingly enough--because it's also the first single off the album. Produced by North Carolina phenom Wonder (formerly of Little Brother), the Nancy Wilson-sampling "Honey" is indeed the poppiest of the bunch, with Badu praising the sweetness of her beloved. This certainly doesn't make it a bad thing. As Wonder has shown with Mary J. Blige and Destiny's Child, he can do a mainstream radio-ready track that doesn't feel like an abhorrent time-waster.
Not surprisingly, Badu is at her most experimental when she joins forces with that eccentric beat scientist from Oxnard on two tracks. "The Healer" is pure bump, as she speaks on hip-hop's unstoppable nature, saying it's "bigger than religion" and "bigger than the government."
Meanwhile, the Eddie Kendricks-inspired "My People" is low-key, minimalist blip-hop, something of a trippy, rambling afterthought the pair probably came up with after one night of experimenting too dang much ... if you catch my drift. Unfortunately, the Badlib (or Madu, whichever you prefer) collabo I really want to hear, the "Real Thing (Music Is Everything)" track that leaked last year, is nowhere to be found. Maybe it will be on New Amerykah Part Two, scheduled for release this summer. (Did you just get a chill? I did!)
The most soulful (in every sense of the word) tunes occur under the watch of L.A. trio Shafiq Husayn, Taz Arnold and Om'Mas Keith, who produce five of Amerykah's tracks. On the confessional "Me," she lays it all out in black-and-white (and gives a shout-out to Louis Farrakhan) while Roy Hargrove's mellow horns and Jef Lee Johnson's jazzy guitar circle around her. Johnson does guitar duty again, along with the Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, on the dense inner-city blues of "Twinkle." They aid in funking up the urban-decay consciousness of "The Cell." On "Master Teacher" they have her team with fellow boho babe Georgia Anne Muldrow to ponder, "What if there were no niggas, only master teachers?" (I ask this question nearly every day.) Finally, on "The Hump," they give her a lot of bop and bass so she can talk about the needle and the damage done.
The Detroit percussionist and hip-hop producer Karriem Riggins (Common, Slum Village) also helps out with the album's social commentary on the anthemic "Soldier." Badu literally cleans out her notebook on this one, riffing on dirty cops, 9/11, the Iraq War, Katrina, gals on prescription pills, gals in therapy, etc.--all set to Riggins' down-for-whateva beats. It may be the most head-nodding barbershop rant I've ever heard.
Sure, a legend like Ayers may seem like the odd man out with all these young cats providing beats for Badu. But he's the perfect candidate to provide the funkified groove for the opening blowout "Amerykahn Promise." After all, the song really is a do-over of "The American Promise," which Ayers composed for '70s jazz/soul outfit Ramp. And what better way to start an album full of unpredictable R&B and complex subject matter?
Last but not least Badu gets with longtime pals/collaborators/Soulquarian brethren Poyser and Thompson for "Telephone," also known as Badu's in-memory-of-Dilla track. Inspired by a story the late hip-hop producer's mom told Badu the day of his "transition," the song's sparseness and poignancy ("Just fly away to heaven brother/ Make a place for me brother") makes it the album's standout track. As always, it takes a couple of boys from Philly to bring out the best in Amerykah.