New Amerykah, the first real Erykah Badu record in a long eight years, kicks off with agitated funk guitar and the Roy Ayers brass-horny blaxploitation groove of “Amerykahn Promise.” With her neo-soul-defining Baduizm back in 1997, the now-37-year-old Southern girl (née Erica Wright) allowed boho songstresses like India.Arie and Corinne Bailey Rae to embrace their inner Joan Armatrading, presenting multifaceted images of the black female singer-songwriter. That’s great and all that, but Badu wasn’t gonna leave it there: Three years later, she invoked space-age ancestors Betty Davis and LaBelle to bust out another modern soul classic (while upending the genre) with Mama’s Gun. Her latest storms out the gate like a 21st-century Superfly. New direction?
Sort of. What “Amerykahn Promise” has in common with the rest of New Amerykah is that it’s more of an unstructured groove than a song; tracks like “My People,” “Twinkle,” and “Master Teacher” (with a muted Curtis Mayfield sample) follow suit. “Promise” ends with a little girl asking, “Has anyone seen my 42 laws?”—a characteristically arcane allusion to the 42 divine principles of the Kemetic goddess Ma’at—while “Twinkle” transitions into someone speaking the ancient African language of Mdw Ntchr before closing with the Peter Finch monologue from Network. What’s always distanced her from the likes of Jill Scott, Macy Gray, or Joi is that sacred woman Badu is a little deeper: With too much knowledge to be borne over a single album, she’s prepping New Amerykah: Pt. Two for summer ’08. Giving it up to Farrakhan and bragging about sharing a birthday with the Nation of Islam’s Savior’s Day (“Me”) is what’s always set Badu apart, lyrically and substantively.
The minimalist “The Healer/Hip-Hop” and “Telephone” both pour libations for the late, great J. Dilla; overall, New Amerykah seems adherent to the old “cohesive studio album” mold of the soul/neo-soul eras. Only the breezy, low-key “Honey” seems crafted with radio airplay in mind. As ever, Badu wants to meld plebian homegirl energy (i.e., Mary J. Blige) with a militant/holistic/spiritualist vibe—see “Soldier” and its references to Iraqi troops, The Final Call, and baptism at the broken levees of New Orleans. Pt. Two is probably where the real songs are, but for now, at least Badu’s back.