Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The top 10 albums of 2008: No. 4

Erykah Badu
New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)

Deep, heady and dense, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) is just about as immense as its title indicates. Erykah Badu has become a vortex, sucking in genres and fusing them. Funk, jazz, neo-soul and hip-hop are a single shape-shifting compound under her command.

The world war noted in the title might well be the fight for our minds. Or the fight for our lives. Or our souls. Or all of the above. "Twinkle" and "The Cell" bemoan the generational struggles of drugs and poverty, a festering combination that boils over in acts of desperation. "They end up in prisons / they end up in blood," Badu states with balefulness, her watchful eye taking in the heaving of the hood. Reporting? Prophesying? They're the same thing here.

"Master Teacher" and "The Healer" can be seen as her responses to the vicious cycle. The former, more contemplative than prescriptive, finds her weighing the troubles in her mind, searching for solutions, allowing the turbulence to keep her up at night; consciousness (though the word itself isn't used) carries a double meaning here, as did "The Cell," which drew a line from DNA to R.I.P. "The Healer," a dialogue between its title character and "the children," suggests that hip-hop, "bigger than religion," could have the power to save them, and that people need to press their own personal reset button in order break free.

New Amerykah parallels various present-day struggles in American society, but its futuristic touches keep you guessing as to what time period this Amerykah exists in (though obviously post-WWIII). "The Cell" skirts along on jazz synths and free-roaming bass, the drummer thumping out a restless beat that gains steam and depth from the hand drums behind it. The contrasts of speed --- vigorous percussion, detached synths --- and structure --- the wandering bass compared to the stationary instruments --- create a feeling of anti-gravity. In "My People," a persistent blip plink-plonk-plink-plonks like some kind of drivers signal, while the thick and enveloping digi-beats give the track a darkness through which pass the natural elements: the chanting Erykah Badus and the rustle of shell-like chimes. Static cuts the track with a hiss, a technique that occurs several times on the album and implies that the song segments, or some of them, are transmissions, and perhaps ones that we survivors are hearing years later.

Put the CD player on shuffle and "Amerykahn Promise" could be the perversely preserved commercial break. It opens like a movie trailer, with an announcer's bellows interspersed with sound effects: "More action." (Bam! Pow!) "More excitement." (Zap, zap, zap, zap!) "More everything."

The song rides the back of '70s lost classic "The American Promise" by jazz-funk greats RAMP, ushering it out of obscurity. Then the '70s crop up again: After the swampy beats of "Twinkle" dissipate and an eerie synth line moves in to fill the vacuum, guest Bilal delivers a reworking of the "I'm mad as hell" speech from the movie "Network." "Recession" has replaced "depression," and now there's mention of flat-screens, 20-inch wheels and higher crime figures, but the rest is pretty much the same.

Just how far in the future is Amerykah?


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