Erykah Badu Review: New Amerykah, Pt 1: 4th World War

Universal Motown’s multi-platinum-selling, Grammy awardwinning singer/songwriter/actress Erykah Badu returns to the music scene with her new album “New Amerykah” featuring the debut single “Honey”. Laced with Erykah’s bluesy grit and MC style vocals, the song is bolstered by producer’s 9th Wonder’s razor sharp hip hop beats. Badu describes the song as “an old school track with some funk on it.” The release of “Honey” on November 20th also marks Badu’s 10th year in the music industry. To celebrate, the gifted trendsetter prepares the release of her much anticipated new album on her birthday, February 26th. Badu has enlisted some of the most talented, groundbreaking underground producers and engineers in the hip-hop game to support her breakthrough return, including Grammy Award winning producer 9th Wonder (Jay-Z, Nas, Mary J. Blige), Madlib, Mike “Chav” Chavarria and R&B singer Bilal. A special, 12-inch pink wax edition will be available only to DJ’s next month and will feature underground tracks, “The Healer” and “Real Thang.” “The music is the star,” says Erykah, “I just laid down my vocals and let the music breathe while the melodies tell the stories.” This album is part one of the series New Amerykah Part 1&2.

Erykah Badu’s new album New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War is as much an ode to the musical past of soul and R&B as it is an look towards the very future of music. The result of this combination is a strangely complex, beautiful album that combines the familiar elements of Badu’s past records with a perfect mix of other genres. Coupled with the bizarre production of underground hip-hop producers Madlib and 9th Wonder, New Amerykah emerges as an intricately balanced hour of music that might be an early contender for record of the year.

Reminiscent of a Funkadelic track or a blaxplotation film, the first track “Amerykhan Promise” begins with a booming voice from a film-trailer sample declaring “More action, more excitement, more everything!” This introduction sets the course for what is exactly the listener gets on Badu’s first album in 5 years. After her last LP, Badu didn’t know if she had anything to else to sing about. Interviews with the singer reported her considering the possibility of retiring. And it’s true that her last release Worldwide Underground seemed more to focus on the aesthetics of sound and the emotionality of music than it did on lyrics. However with New Amerkah, Badu has returned with a laundry list of grievances and introspective realizations that from the beginning seconds becomes immediately apparent.

The eerie track, “The Healer” declares hip-hop to be bigger than religion and the government. While tracks such as “The Cell” and “Master Teacher” show Badu examining the struggles of class and race within American society in the 21st century. By the end of the album, Badu has covered everything from the U.S. education system to Hurricane Katrina. However, her lyrics don’t overpower and never reach the point of preachy. If anything they inspire and contain a sense of hope that all troubles can be eventually overcome.

In addition, it becomes apparent that Badu understand the necessity of a track to progress and take it time. She shines when she needs to but allows the producers and studio musicians to guide each track when necessary. A perfect example of this perfect combination of elements is heard through the standout song “Soldier”. Beginning with a simply yet hard-hitting hip-hop beat, the production holds back the sample-heavy tendencies found on the rest of the album to let Badu vocals and lyrics develop as the driving element of the song. However, the production still adds enough carefully placed elements to the track that only further emphasize the mood established by Badu’s voice and her lyrics. New Amerykah is littered with such similar instances where a precise and effective equilibrium between Badu and the music is established that brings each passing second to its fullest potential.

Musically, this is the closest Badu has come to releasing a “hip-hop” album. However, there are still enough relaxed soul-jazz pieces and strange genre-bending moments (often times in the middle of a song) that keep Badu’s latest release free from any definitive categorization. While the marrying of various genres and combined elements make New Amerykah so strong, it is the songs when Badu returns to her jazzy R&B roots that surface as the finer tracks. No song better exemplifies this as the track “That Hump”. Starting off as a slow, drum and keyboard combination the song gradually develops into a fully-developed lounge-soul track where Badu’s vocal strength is exposed more than any other part of the album. At the apex of the emotion, the song quickly switches styles and delves into a more 70’s jazz sound in the vein of Roberta Flack before returning to the original beat established at the beginning of the tune. Moments like this declare the potency of Badu’s voice and confirmed that despite the great production, this album could not have been made without her presence.
Fearless, intriguing, inspiring, and beautiful; it becomes quickly apparent that there is definitely something extraordinary going on in New Amerykah. The complexity of the album may take some listeners a bit more time to completely realize just how powerful it truly is. Thus, a word of advice: listen close, no part of this record deserves to go unnoticed.

Review by Saxon Baird

Grade: A
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