If it seems that every review dealing with black female soul/hip-hop artists must find root in the previous decade then allow me to get right to that point. Like most critics, I’ll eschew R&B for now, because no matter how many mediocre albums Alicia and Mary J. make, neither has made a One In A Million this decade and probably never will. Put an asterisk beside Lauryn Hill, and that leaves us with the precocious but missing in action Rah Digga and Joi (so lauded that record labels are baffled what to do with her).
1997, however, ushered in two artists that have come to define black music. Missy Elliott may be re-treading into boredom now, but up until recently she was the most vital thing in hip/hop. Now she does songs like "Ching –a-Ling" and gets laughed at. One writes her off at their own peril though, because who else can deliver freaky brilliance like "Work It" and "Pass That Dutch"? Missy cannot claim however an entire album of consistent greatness other than her debut, Supa Dupa Fly. That’s why Erykah Badu's Baduizm remains — along with One in a Million — the defining album of a ‘sister’ in that decade.
Baduizm was supposed to have ushered in a new wave of neo-soul awareness. But its magnitude was such that not even Badu herself could match it with subsequent albums. While others have wisely not tried to scale its heights either, they have elevated their game since then. In the process Badu has padded two very good albums with a wavering conscience and gotten by with her critics darling tag intact.
Now, at 37 with so much behind her, Badu has come full circle with New Amerykah, an opus that gleefully erases the frustration one feels when hearing inferior artists aping her vibe while missing her essence totally. It is brilliant and witty in a way her peers just can’t seem to indoctrinate into their DNA. It’s a mere 10 songs plus the bonus track "Honey," but less is more here as Badu restricts pandering to anything other than her current state of reflection.
This is no retread though or last stab at what established her initially. While some still pine for her head-wraps and ankhs, it’s clear she has moved on to a path that can no longer be subverted. The greatness isn’t in spurts either: from the retro intro "Amerykahn Promise" to the sugary "Honey" that closes it, the album is robust.
That is what separates her from her peers too — the ability to achieve continuity amid taking stock and chances. Mary J. Blige seems perennially at a heart-mending stage, but it was apropos back then in ’94 when she had the pulse of the streets. Lauryn Hill’s bitterness towards so much threatens to curtail her brilliant career, and Alicia Keys keeps on hiding her true self both on and off record. Even bad acts like Mariah Carey on her manipulative new song, "Touch My Body," seems etched in the same feral intent and tight dresses that now just reek of desperation.
Badu wraps her soul around brilliant funk jams like "The Healer" and "Twinkle," and the effect is devastatingly spare yet filling in a way Jill Scott hasn’t mastered since "A Long Walk." What Badu does is even more remarkable when one considers that the only politics being discussed on New Amerykah are those of her womanhood and relationships.
"Fly free baby fine with me/ I’m in love with a bumble bee," she croons on the breezy "Honey" in obvious reference to Dre (from Outkast). Her delivery can spin wry lyrics too: "Mama coughed up on cocaine/ daddy on spaceships with no brain," she yelps on "The Cell" which works wondrously as an expose on the drug addiction that faces so many in her land.
Her focus on "The Healer" encompasses more than just her art-form, going further to express how misguided it has become in its quest to dominate music. "We’ve been programmed/wake up/we miss you," she loving reminds while dumping down herself musically to scale larger on lyrics. "The Healer" reaches within itself to constantly mourn the late J Dilla as well as the sad state of music. Badu’s production is aided sublimely by Dilla’s efforts as well as 9th Wonder, Madlib and Mike ‘Chav’ Chavarria.
No matter the scenario though, Badu has finally flittered around to giving us the soulful masterpiece we’ve been harping for and she’s accomplished it on her own post neo-soul terms. Here’s the follow-up that rivals Baduizm as the defining artistic venture in her remarkable life.
Many artists only get one brilliant flash but Badu now has two. The only difference this time around, is that her influence will be even quicker, more immediate than the first time as even her peers are recognizing her efforts. The upcoming brilliant album by New York rapper Jean Grae (look out for my review when it drops) features a shout out to Badu on the first track. Grae is without doubt the finest female rapper out there now, and if she can hail the woman who helped make her venture worthwhile then that’s the props I’m keeping in tune with.