One of the big game changers of late ’90s R&B was Erykah Badu. Seemingly from out of nowhere she almost single-handedly redefined soul music and became branded the queen of neo-soul, the movement she help spearhead into the public consciousness. Early hits like “Tyrone” and “On & On” from her debut Baduizm became huge hits that recalled the spirit of Billie Holiday in a modern post ghetto context.
Fast forward a few years later and after the pressure of supporting three albums on a schedule of relentless touring had began to take its tool, being the ‘queen’ had lost its luster. After slipping into a funk that strained her creative output, she took a break from making music.
Fortunately, her friends and collaborators were many. With the support and encouragement of Q Tip, Questlove and others, Badu would send songs back and forth in a collaboration via the internet. With her new MacBook Pro, she began a process of constructing songs to the point that she had completed an albums worth of demos.
The resulting album that was recorded in New York would become her mid period masterpiece.
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) was a concept album in the spirit of classic albums from Parliament or Issac Hayes. Badu combined political and social commentary about the state of the ghetto with funk, jazz and bits of electronica. It was her most varied and densely produced effort to date and quite frankly the first of her recordings that I could sit through completely and not be turned off by the extreme afro feminism of some of her earlier efforts (was Tyrone really all that bad?).
The first single “Honey” became a top 30 hit while the album stayed near the top of the carts in the US and in many European nations despite not having any huge follow up singles. This album was clearly not a collection of singles and many modern R&B albums still were.
Part of what makes New Amerykah.. so special was the long list of collaborators involved in the project. In addition to Questlove and Q Tip, the album includes contributions from Bilal, Roy Hargrove and Georgia Anne Muldrow.
In fact it was Muldrow’s touch on the Bootsy Collins-like “Master Teacher” and a similarly styled track ‘That Hump” that got my attention. The line “what if there was no niggas only master teachers” was a powerful statement in imagining a fully productive black community.
The album continues with commentary with interludes from characters created out of a surreal world of mass consumption and complacency. It was like listening to a grownup and more sinister version of Starchild from Parliament records. The intros were part of a continuing dialogue about the affairs of the black community and American society in general.
Badu herself said that she wanted to pe a spokesperson for her race as well as the world. Her simplistic message indeed resonated with all audiences which was part of why the album sold so well and appealed to critics at the same time.
The dense sampling (often from snippets of old blaxploitation films or ’70s soul songs) at times lent a spookiness or dark cast to the music. That tone is echoed in the cover art that looked like a surrealistic cross between Salvador Dali and the Funkadelic album cover for Maggot Brain.
Some of the magic of New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) would be continued in its sequel from two years later New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh). The two albums could be seen as a conceptual pair despite having different musical directions. Badu’s musical output pretty much ended after 2010, leading some to wonder if the queen has gone into hiding or worse has suffered a new bout of writer’s block.