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DJBooth Album Review
In retrospect, I should have seen this coming. A few years back I saw her at the Paramount Theater in Oakland and she spent her show dedicating songs to her chakras and chanting in Egyptian – all while sporting an afro large enough to hide a school bus. Now, after a lengthy bout of writer’s block, she’s finally channeled her electric, wandering, almost extraterrestrial creativity into an album that will be the new definition of innovative. When she first rolled onto the scene (and on and on) she was dubbed the “Queen of Neo-Soul.” Well after America gets its cranium cracked by New Amerykah, she’s going to be the “Queen of Neo-Psychedelic-Hip Hop-70s-Retro-Funk.” There, how’s that for a description?
But Honey, the first single off the album, doesn’t sound strange at all? Good point. Let’s do a little visualization exercise. Picture this: You’re an executive at Universal Records. Erykah Badu walks into your office, tells you she’s finished her new album, and puts New Amerykah on the stereo. The first thing you hear is the four minute Parliament Funkadelic-inspired instrumental track Amerykan Promise, a song featuring an omnipotent voice saying things like “before you get rid of her, give me a brain tissue sample.” Your first thought is, “this is the most interesting thing I’ve heard in years.” Your second thought is, “holy shit, there is no way in hell radio’s coming within ten miles of this album.” So you get 9th Wonder to put together some fresher-than-fresh production, shift Erykah into old school party jam mode, and voila, you have Honey. And that, my friends, is how I’m willing to bet it went down.
Be warned, Honey’s soulful sweetness is no indication (I repeat, no indication) of what New Amerykah has in store for you. Take the Madlib produced The Healer (Hip-Hop). The beat takes a simple bell chime, mixes in an eerily distant bass line and some distorted vocal samples, and leaves it to Erykah to fill the empty space with her haunting, sometime indecipherable lyrics. Your talking about a woman who trades off lines like “hip-hop is bigger than religion, hip-hop is bigger than the government,” with “underwater stovetop, blue flame, scientist come out with your scales up.” I don’t know what it means, but it’s dope. And sometimes, that’s enough.
Before I scare off anyone who’s not reading this review stoned (which I can’t officially recommend, but…I don’t not recommend), there are just enough earthly moments to keep New Amerykah from completely losing grip with reality. Me is the kind of organic funk track Badu mastered on her sophomore album Mama’s Gun, and Soldier is an unapologetic return to the kind of modern soul that made her famous. Even better is Telephone, a minimally touched track that’s simultaneously a moving ode to recently passed production icon J Dilla, and a reminder that behind the space age fashion and lyrics is a singer with a surprisingly strong and beautiful voice. She’s not going to hit a Keyshia Cole-esque breakdown any time soon, but such over-the-top vocal theatrics can also be a smoke-screen for singers to hide behind. Not Erykah. With her, what you hear is what you get. And what you hear on New Amerykah is a woman who’s just now figuring out how to let the world see what going on inside her head. Even if her thoughts aren’t always pretty.
Listen, if your favorite color is beige and your favorite condiment is mayonnaise, I cannot in good conscience recommend New Amerykah. If you’re idea of getting crazy is putting a little extra syrup on your pancakes, than Badu’s latest unhinged creation will scare the bejeezus out of you. But if you’re feeling adventurous, if you could use a little vacation from reality, than by all means come and explore Erykah’s brave new world. Or you could listen to Low for the ten-thousandth time. You know, whichever.
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 03/5/08
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