Is 'New Amerykah' More of the Same?

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“What if there were no niggas, only master teachers?” Bilal and Georgia Anne Muldrow co-croon on the eighth track of Erykah Badu’s lastest disc, New Amerykah.
Their reply to one another: “I’d stay ‘woke.”

They go on asking the same question and offering the same answer for the first two minutes of the song, before Badu herself chimes in, repeating their query for another minute and a half, then completely changing the tone, melody, and lyrics—for about one verse. She says things like, “Baby’s sleeping/time to put her down/I’ll be hanging ’round… I stay woke.” and “Congregation nods their head and says, ‘Amen.’/The deacon fell asleep again…. I stay woke,” until the remainder of the song’s nearly seven-minute runtime dissolves into a series of hypnotic “Oooh, Ahh”s.
Read that back. Did any of it make any sense? Right. There’s a lot of that to go around on this disc.

New Amerykah, Badu’s fourth studio album, five years in the making, is full of the stuff Badu’s become known for: intoxicating instrumentation, decades-spanning genre influences, unapologetic admissions (Who can forget the raw disclosure, “I’m insecure and I can’t help it,” on the instant breakup classic, “Green Eyes?”), and social comments that act as non sequiturs. Her most familiar- (“Honey”) and strange-sounding (“The Healer”) songs from the project have already cropped up online, so we won’t say much about them here, except the former has an amazing video (per usual. Badu’s videos, mostly self-directed, tend to be cinematic and creative, exciting and refreshing) and the former greatly benefits from the services of eccentric acid-hip-hop beatmaker Madlib.

If you’re hearing any rumblings about how “groundbreaking” it all is, give the disc a few months to gel. You’ll find that “Soldier” reminds you of a faster “Bag Lady” in sentiment and in sound and “Telephone,” a Dilla-eulogizing composition and one of the project’s most lovely tracks, will recall the aforementioned “Green Eyes” in mood and rawness. The breezy, confessional “Me” (where the chanteuse drops these cheeky bon mots: “Had two babies, different dudes/and for them both my love was true/this is my last interview” and “This year, I turned 36/damn it seems it came so quick/my ass and legs have gotten thick”) will hearken back to the Afro skit from Baduizm in its final minute and a half. These, of course, are great things, but significantly original for Badu they’re not.

What the CD does add that we haven’t necessarily heard before are puzzling, theatrical voiceovers from random dudes. On the intro, the disembodied voice belongs to a supposed “gatekeeper” to New Amerykah—a place where just one broken promise earns you permanent residency. The other crops up at the end of “Twinkle,” where the voice pontificates with affected indignance about “the world going mad.” We’re still trying to sort those out. They’re about as quizzical as the central question of the “Master Teacher” song.

All in all, New Amerykah is the next stop on Badu’s whirlwind life-tour. Fans love her for her willingness to pull them along in her intergalactic sleigh, no matter how bumpy the ride. Critics tend to wish the rides were a bit smoother at this point in her journey (and perhaps slightly less adlibby and hummy in long sections where lyrics would do). Wherever you fall along that spectrum, this disc is definitely worth multiple listens, either to reminisce about what was best about Badu’s previous outings or to sift through the streams of consciousness and pan for new musical gold.

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slb (aka Stacia L. Brown) is a writer, mother, and college instructor in Baltimore, MD. Check her out here: http://stacialbrown.com and here: http://beyondbabymamas.com.

25 comments to Is 'New Amerykah' More of the Same?

  • LH

    I never managed to become a Badu fan. She strikes me as searching for deepness and eccentricity. How boring.

  • EddieA

    More of the same?… what have YOU been listening to… cause I have got to get some of that! If anything, I mean ANYTHING tops what Badu can do, it’s got to be worth knowing. How can you say that about her? I’m a professionally-trained, classical musician from one of our major American conservatories, and I can tell you that this is one of the most creative musicians of our time, when only considering what she does musically… then add in the genius of her lyrics, THEN add in her marvelous political statements, THEN consider the symbolism at multiple levels!!! … and it’s all enjoyable to listen to! The lady is THE continuation of Holiday, Fitzgerald, etc etc etc!
    So, let me guess – you’re a fan of Janet’s new breathless-sounding CD that sounds/is EXACTLY like her last one?… or Beyonce’s cheerleading songs?… please! go buy Badu’s album and get away from the trite!

  • slb

    EddieA: First, where in this review did I say she *wasn’t* creative? Where did I say the album wasn’t good or sounded bad? I’m saying it’s typical Badu–which is actually a great thing. But this CD isn’t charting much territory Badu hasn’t already charted with Mama’s Gun or any of her previous efforts.

    Also: can you point out a few of these “marvelous political statements?”

  • “Also: can you point out a few of these “marvelous political statements?””

    Beat me to it.

  • I don’t think this typical Badu…well maybe more of an extension of her Worldwide Underground album but on her new album, she really went into left field. I do not think you can say that about her first two albums which were very traditional in my opinion. Her first two albums were a mix of 70′s R&B and Jazz, in fact I think parts of her first album were boring.

    I think her new album is so much into left field, it makes you pay attention to each track.

  • Patience

    Either you dig E Badu or you don’t.

    But before you “critique” check the liner notes and get the lyrics correct:

    “This year I turned 36 … DAMN IT SEEM IT CAME SO QUICK”

    What are YOU talking about…

  • Steve

    This album is over indulgent scattered confused and entirely too short…
    it’s just another world wide underground (but more left field) without even a good single…

  • slb

    Patience: thanks for the clarification. I’m all for accuracy, but I don’t think that half-line changes anything significant about the merits (and deficits) of the CD as critiqued.

  • B!

    For some reason, I love Master Teacher. Well, not for some reason. I’m a teacher who teaches lots of young men who like to call each other “niggas.” The question automatically made me think of renaming ourselves for our accomplishments. But that’s just me. Always room for interpretation.
    Before I heard New Am, I knew I’d come to moments in the album that left me thinking “What the…? Whatever Erykah.”
    I don’t think it’s left-field or groundbreaking. Not at all. It’s not doing anything sonically that less popular artists have been doing for years. I think it’s the continuance of a dialogue about the oppressed community that’s been going on for a long time.

    GREAT site, by the way!

  • I got a copy today, so I will return with my thoughts later. But if it is, as you say, more of the same… well, that’s perfectly fine with me.

  • Tasha

    uh…political statements…
    start with the first track literally titled ‘Amerykahn Promise’
    do we really have to break down the title/song itself…i mean dudes ‘that’s not science’ lol…

  • slb

    What’s the *statement,* though? “America hasn’t made good on its promise?” “America betrays its own?” Profound!

  • Tasha: if that’s political commentary, what isn’t? that doesn’t seem…i dunno. insightful? new?

  • Big Word

    Please don’t ever make the mistake of offering any type of critique of anyone in the Soulquairian collective. I once made the mistake of posting under a review of the Roots last album..that “they were getting better at what they do” and one dude lost it.

    I still think she drove Andre and Common crazy.

  • slb

    Big Word: It *is* kind of a risky venture, isn’t it? It’s like volunteering to have hot coals heaped on your head or something. Everyone calls you stupid, insists you’re missing the point, and suggests that perhaps you need to turn your radio back to whichever station plays bad black celeb gossip, Beyonce, and reggaeton 24 hours a day, because clearly that’s more your speed.

    Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with *not* thinking the Soulquarians are flawless bastions of all that is still right wtih hip-hop and r&b/soul.

  • LH

    Big Word: I literally laughed aloud at “Soulquarian collective.” Literally. That is 100 per cent spot-on! It’s like … you can’t say **anything** about those artists without being clowned. What is the story with that anyway?

  • LH: That’s actually the name of their loosely assembled clique: Q-Tip, Jay Dee, Badu, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, The Roots, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, James Poyser.

    for a brief but glorious stretch, they produced two or three classic albums (Badu’s Mama’s Gun being the apex, in my opinion).

  • LH

    G.D.: Thanks for the info. I had no clue. I thought Big Word coined the term. I can’t decide if it’s more or less funny now that I know that’s what they call themselves.

  • LH: It was a joke among them, I think. Poyser, D’Angelo and ?uestlove are all Aquariuses, and tossed the name around when they were making Voodoo, if I’m remembering the story correctly.

  • slb

    I still blame/thank them for “Electric Circus.”

  • Tasha

    SLB/GD – now if you wanted further exploration or a bigger impact you should have said so. Simply stating you cannot locate political statements in an album quite full of them is disingenuous at least, horrid use of irony at most.

    If a sprinkle of politics with your music isnt your steez that’s fine. A heavy dose of knock you over your head lets riot/ kill yt maybe more to your taste but denying that there political commentary throughout the album…uh
    nah ya’ll

  • slb

    It’s not that she isn’t peppering her albums with politics. It’s that her fans heap this praise on her regarding the profundity of those statements (as above: “marvelous” political statements, the gentleman called them). They’re not marvelous or profound or groundbreaking politics. They’re generalities. She’s saying “the towers fell” and she’s saying Hurricane Katrina “baptized” New Orleans residents. And she’s saying the U.S. is flawed. Yeah, we know.

    No problem with her making those claims, but I don’t think she’s advancing political discussions by making broad general statements. That’s cool too… until people start holding her albums up as politically insightful.

    So when G.D. and I asked where the marvelous political statements are, we weren’t implying that we couldn’t identify any politic statements. We meant we couldn’t identify any “marvelous” ones.

  • Tasha

    Marvelous is a relative term. In relation to the album and politics it may be more a comment on the listener, than on the album. This sort of commentary maybe new to that person and they find it marvelous, also note the state of the music industry today. In comparison her music may also be viewed as profound in relation to what is on the airwaves.

    Lowered expectations – sure
    Naïve – why not
    cynicism – neccessary default?

  • Guillermo

    I agree that critics sometimes go overboard with the “groundbreaking” label, in trying to tell us all what’s Terribly Important.

    But “more of the same” isn’t really fair, either. Music is an expression of life, and I would expect artists to give me a snapshot of their life from where they are now…which should be a progression: the same, but further along on the journey.

    I don’t disagree that her albums aren’t thoughtful at a textbook level. But I think those generalities are there for the listener to use as a door or a window, to open and explore on one’s own.

    All I know is I like Badu. She’s intensely smart with a little bit o’ crazy thrown in, and the sounds on this album speak to me.

  • I LOVE Erykah Badu … and yes, this CD does remind me a bit of Mama’s Gun (which is my all-time favorite), a bit of Worldwide Underground, and a teency bit of her other CDs. But that’s what makes it so damend good. She has taken the best parts of her previous releases and incorporated them into this CD. Tracks 8-11 represent some of the best music I have ever heard in all of my 40 years.

    May we all stay woke! :)

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