A revival of soul music, updated to the technology of the hip-hop era,
was heralded by Texas-born singer-songwriter
Erykah "Badu" Wright's Baduizm (1997), although her tormented
vocals were more reminiscent of blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday.
On And On made her a star, but the album deserved more because it fused
hip-hop's street culture, soul music's spiritual anxiety and psychedelic-rock's arrangements.
The loud and unnerving bass lines that work like landmines to upset the overture
Rimshot are a premonition for the rest of the album.
The jazzy, swampy, chilly On & On walks a thin line between ethereal and
corporeal, soulful and brainy.
The gently and wittily swinging Appletree almost seems to be an update of the bold rhythm'n'blues shouters of the 1950s (Etta James) for the chill room,
at times the tempo slows down to an oneiric crawl, like in Next Lifetime.
She can sound like both the most
confident Frank Sinatra in Certainly and the
sweetest and haziest Janet Jackson in 4 Leaf Clover.
The album relies significantly on the call and response between Badu and
her loyal female choir, whether in
the delicate, smooth chanting of Sometimes or in the more syncopated,
Mama's Gun (2000) was an inferior work, despite the funky
ballad Bag Lady,
and especially the ten-minute elegy Green Eyes.
that grows organically like a living being but stops short of becoming
an emphatic crescendo.
The attempts at renewal are not always successful but she takes a stab at
the visceral soul-rock of the 1970s in Penitentiary Philosophy and
at lounge jazz in Cleva and even at an oddly orchestrated blues with natural sounds, Orange Moon.
Her sleek singing style is the main attraction of & On
and Time's A Wastin'.
Worldwide Underground (2003), ostensibly an EP containing the single
Danger (forceful vocal games on a trombone-like keyboard pulsation),
the nine-minute Bump It (a slow-motion funk shuffle with ethereal keyboard effects that turns into a psychedelic tribal jam)
and the eleven-minute I Want You (a sensual post-disco fantasy over an
Afro-beat pulsation also highlighted by James Poyser's funk-jazz keyboards and
closed with a surreal hard-rock finale).
Even the breezy and soulful Back In The Day seems to carry a
bit of neurosis, and Woo is positevely alienated as it swims in a
lake of backing vocalists, percussion and dj scratching.
With help from Sa-Ra Creative Partners,
New Amerykah Part One - 4th World War (Motown, 2008) revisits
soothing soul music, digital glitches and intense hip-hop,
blending live instrumentation and samples in a fluent and never discordant
manner. While nothing is as ambitious as the previous records, she achieves
a sort of classical elegance in
the slow-motion, trancey, exotic and brooding Madlib-produced The Healer,
the naked Kariem Riggins-produced sociopolitical rap-sermon Soldier.
and the viscous, spiraling midtempo dance Honey
(with a James Brown-ian introduction).
On the other hand, there's a side of hers that does not tolerate the
constraints of classy productions and enjoys letting go. Hence
Amerykahn Promise, a disco-era funk jam (or, better, a Frank Zappa parody of such genre),
and The Cell, an exuberant choral Shafiq Husayn-produced rave-up.
There is a simple and spontaneous side that pens
the ballad Me, coming through as the sweetest Diana Ross,
and the introverted aching eight-minute elegy Telephone.
and then there is a brainy side that
Twinkle has the most convoluted beat, with abstract sound effects
that border on electronic collage.
Recitation and soundscape respond to each other in the seven-minute psychodrama Master Teacher that halfway morphs into a liquid jazzy ballad.
New Amerykah Pt 2 - Return Of The Ankh (Universal Motown, 2010)
presents an assertive and extroverted woman
(Window Seat, the stereotypical Badu elegy, and Turn Me Away, a reworking of
Sylvia Striplin's You Can't Turn Me Away)
that can even indulge in naive lullabies (Gone Baby Don't Be Long,
reminiscent of a Paul McCartney song) and does not relate easily to
the frustrated chanteuse and eccentric intellectual of the previous albums.
The songs are mostly straightforward and limit any detour from the classic
format of the soul ballad. That depresses the power of her vocals, to say
The thicker and louder production does not help.
The moments of genius are limited to the
sound effects and eerie atmosphere of 20 Feet Tall, to the
psychedelic soul with neoclassical nuances of Umm Hmm,
and to Incense, a chamber lied for theremin and harp.
and the smoky, jazzy and trip-hoppish
Out My Mind Just In Time, a worthy addition to the canon of her
lengthy psychodramas that redeems the fundamentally mediocrity of the other
songs and rescues the album from oblivion.
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