Erykah Badu, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
The 21st century was a fallow one for neo-soul, an appellation that was once shorthand for a new generation of smooth operators among them D’Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu. Aside from her exploratory and open-ended EP Worldwide Underground in 2003, Badu had been quiet, watching a strain of hip-hop-influenced R&B slowly take over the pop charts. When Badu released New AmErykah in 2008, her intentions were made clear amid chiming and handclaps on opening track “The Healer”: “Re-boot, re-fresh, re-start.” Badu revealed herself to be an R&B songstress who was comfortable cooing amid hip-hop’s concusses (check the flute and boom-tick of “Soldier”); her verses are abstract, yet still political. As she told Vibe: “I would call New AmErykah political/analytical/left brain/patriarchal.” But Badu’s idea of being analytical and logical would serve as anyone else’s right brain. Mercurial from moment to moment, the sound palette, crafted by Badu along with Sa-Ra Creative Partners, jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers, and Madlib, is indulgent yet focused, its funk tightly-coiled (see the Curtis Mayfield-looping squiggles of “Master Teacher”) and its jazzy explorations open-ended. Throughout the album, interludes speak to Badu’s state of mind. Acerbic diatribes lifted from Network about our consumer society are offset by squeaky voices referencing Kemetic goddess Ma’at’s 42 laws. Erykah sounds like she’s been absorbing Parliament Funkadelic, left-wing conspiracy talk radio and Saturday morning cartoons in equal measure, the end result being a beautiful mess of an R&B album that fully embraced what at the end of the Bush Administration surely seemed like the end times.