Given that this is an election year, it’s only inevitable that politics and music would become intertwined in 2008. This extends beyond Death Cab for Cutie playing at voter registration drives or Stevie Wonder performing at the DNC. Musical artists have been mining politics for inspiration in this decade possibly more so than any other since the 1960s. Yet, after a while, it’s important to freshen up the formula. While it’s not hard to gain sympathy with a statement of abhorrence toward war or the current administration, it takes a greater vision to make that material into something of a lasting and hard-hitting musical statement.
Erykah Badu is one such artist who toes the line between political statement and abstract expression, but listening to her new album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), it’s hard not to be reminded of classic soul albums from the likes of Sly and The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye or Parliament, each of whom combined good times with social consciousness in ways that even the most well-meaning troubadours can’t always pull off. Badu, who is largely responsible for popularizing neo-soul, has since moved on to something funkier, more psychedelic and more outrageous. And damn, is it good.
New Amerykah playfully combines bits of the smooth Badu soul of yore with a harder, tripper edge (on several tracks, courtesy of Madlib) and an infusion of black politics that’s as much about celebration as it is about frustration. She name drops Farrakhan on “Me,” while repeating a Zen-like title mantra on “My People.” Leadoff track “Amerykahn Promise” is about as far from a conventional song as Badu typically goes, in that it’s somewhere between an extended funk jam, skit, introduction and spoken word piece, but mostly it’s just a kickass track. Alternately low- and high-pitched voices engage in a dialogue, with a little girl asking in the end “has anyone seen my 42 laws,” only to have the ominous American authority reply, “I’m sorry, we’re not responsible for lost articles and thangs.” Music becomes the message in “The Healer,” in which Badu not only extends a dedication to the late J Dilla, but also proclaims that “hip-hop is bigger than religion…is bigger than the government.” And the furious funk of “The Cell” finds Badu addressing drug abuse, poverty and privilege, oddly and simultaneously combining the playful and the austere.
Take note of the Part One in the title, and the idea that the intellectual funk jams on New Amerykah will result in a second full-length is all the more exciting. Badu has reached a new plateau in her artistic capabilities, and in a political climate such as the one in the United States today, it’s important to have an album such as this, addressing the social ills while joyously diving into positivity, as well.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.