Review Summary: The soul album of the year.
It's slightly depressing how soul has been marginalized since the days of Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie, and its adoption into the very heart of the mainstream. Contemporary R&B has become an entirely different beast, bearing at least as much in common with hip-hop as it does with the soul of the '60s and '70s. Neo-soul failed entirely to capitalize on its early hype and become a major player in commercial music, and the likes of Badu's fellow Soulquarian Bilal have been left by the wayside when they should be megastars. The sad truth is that when people these days want soul - genuine, gutbusting, soul-bearing soul - they generally go back to the same stuff people were listening to 30 or more years ago. It's Marvin, or Curtis, or Stevie, or Otis. Rarely is it any of the multitude of talented artists plowing their trade in the thankless business of neo-soul.
All of this is something we could bemoan for hours, but what it has done is create a situation from which albums like New Amerykah
can emerge, and that is a Very Good Thing. Make no mistake - this album is absolutely outstanding, and it's just about unlike any soul record I've ever heard. It might be an over-reaction to label this as post-neo-soul, but it's certainly moved beyond the ideas and conventions that have defined neo-soul over the past decade. No longer can Badu be accurately compared to an artist like D'Angelo or Maxwell. Perhaps the only reasonably modern music that can be held up for comparison is music that has been made by her fellow Soulquarians - Common's Electric Circus
, Black Star's classic debut, The Roots' similarly forward-thinking Game Theory
, the more esoteric end of Bilal's under-rated 1st Born Second
- and not least of all that, the work of the late J. Dilla.
Although he obviously died before being able to take part in this project, J. Dilla's influence weighs heavy over this. Even if the album's sound wasn't inspired by him, at least two of the songs are - "Telephone" is arguably the album's best and most direct song, a downbeat, heartfelt tribute to the man who was such a crucial part of the Soulquarians and such a trailblazer for the neo-soul sound. "The Healer", too, sees Badu namedrop him directly - 'this one is for Dilla' - as she sings of the importance of hip-hop to millions today.
Clearly this was Badu's project from the ground up, because even though there's a multitude of producers working on here (9th Wonder on "Honey", Madlib on "The Healer/Hip Hop" and "My People", Sa-Ra on four tracks, ?uestlove and James Poyser on "Telephone", jazz drummer Karriem Riggins on "Soldier"), the album flows as one, and the sound is consistent. Badu herself is credited as co-producer on every song, and that seems like a crucial fact in how well this works as an album. Still, chunks of this are clearly indebted to Dilla. The input and influence of ?uestlove should not be understated either - the almost through-composed Game Theory
offered a hint of what Badu would attempt here too.
The criticism that can be leveled at this album (and no doubt WILL be) is that there are moments here where Erykah flies off the map entirely. There's pushing the envelope, and then there's just being obtuse for the sake of it, and quite what category the chipmunk vocals on "Amerykahn Promise", or the vocal/horn ending of "Me", or the holy chatter on "Twinkle" fall into is debatable. Yet, these moments are necessary evils for an album that sees Badu striving so fearlessly for a voice and a sound to distinguish her as a singular, forward-thinking artist. In the same way that I'm prepared to forgive the flaws in Frank Zappa's We're Only In It For The Money
, or in Faith No More's Angel Dust
, I'm prepared for forgive the more off-putting moments here. Hey, they add character, right?
That aside, when this album is on it's ***ing ON. Throughout, the dense production ensures that the album only gets better with repeated listens. Badu's lyrics are similarly dense and guarded, and peppered with references to classic soul, progressive politics, her private life, and the state of hip-hop and soul music today. There are endless details here that don't reveal themselves until you've got several listens under your belt. "Me" and "That Hump" are about as confessional as Badu has ever been, and anybody seeking Badu's thoughts on having children by two rap legends will find it here. "Twinkle" is also a highlight, with perhaps the album's most inventive production job and a spooked ending more than a little reminiscent of DJ Shadow's "Stem/Long Stem".
It's worth mentioning that the single, "Honey", is only included as a bonus track here and is a complete anomaly in the context of the album. It's a great song, of course, with a great video - yet, unless this is included here as some sort of a transition to New Amerykah Part Two
, it feels out of place. In fairness, if Badu was ordered to include the song so that Motown had their 'hit single' to promote the record, she leads up to it nicely - "That Hump" and "Telephone" feel more like 'songs' than anything else on the album, and if another single is taken from here, it's almost guaranteed to be one of these two. Both are great, like pretty much everything else on here.
To be truthful, it wouldn't surprise me if this album got lost to history a little, and got dismissed as an experimental folly the same way Electric Circus
has been. Defiantly anti-mainstream, it's certainly the least accessible thing she's ever done, and perhaps the least accessible album ever associated with the Soulquarians. It takes time to click, for sure, but even from the first listen New Amerykah
reveals its considerable depths and strengths, and invites the listener to invest the time needed to explore them. In a world where Alicia Keys is frequently considered a leading light in returning soul to its past glories, I can't describe how fresh that is. If another soul album comes out this year that's any better than this, 2008 will have been the best year for the genre in a generation - this album has quite simply grabbed me by the throat and it won't let go.