One of the highlights of Prince’s much-hyped 2004 Musicology tour came at the diminutive one’s Dallas show, when a very pregnant Erykah Badu jumped onstage toward the end and danced during a 20-minute jam.
The moment illustrated not only Badu’s free spirit, but also the fact that she (along with her former boyfriend/baby daddy, Andre 3000) might be Prince’s truest contemporary heir. New Amerykah, her first release in five years, is her answer to Sign O’ the Times-era Prince, a syncopated state-of-the-union address that is incoherent at times, but never fails to be singular.
Badu’s flighty warble has, over the years, earned comparisons to Billie Holiday, but on New Amerykah she more often suggests what might have resulted if Dionne Warwick joined the Black Panthers in 1969. Right off the bat, with the blaxploitation groove of “Amerykahn Promise,” she rips into empty materialism, with a double-edged promise: “I’ll love you tooth for tooth/and eye for eye.”
“Me” has attracted attention for Badu’s unabashed salute to Louis Farrakhan, but what really grabs you about this track is the way its cool, space-age funk simultaneously evokes contemporary, underground hip-hop and vintage soul. Unlike anyone else in modern R&B, Badu can sound like an old woman and a young girl in the space of a single verse, without changing her vocal timbre. The song finds her choosing to listen to her own conscience rather than the rhetoric of political leaders, even as she struggles to make sense of that conscience, asking herself, “Will I escape this vanity?”
At her best, with the rubbery, loose-limbed “That Hump” (a slice of urban, working-class reality) or the break-beat complexity of “The Cell” (the tale of drug deals gone sour), Badu is the smartest, most inspired purveyor of black pop since Lauryn Hill gave us all a good miseducation.
On the downside, she meanders through tracks such as “Twinkle” and “My People” (a rote chant that goes on and on) and even some of the highlights go off the rails by the end. But that’s the price of Badu-izm. As with Prince, you plow through the indulgence, because the master strokes are worth it.