With all the talk about the decline in the quality of Hip Hop music, R&B is often left out of the equation. The truth is that R&B music has gone much the same way of Hip Hop, soulful grooves replaced with bass heavy, club friendly tracks. While much of the commercial mainstream prefers to cater to the 106 & Park generation, there is a sliver of major label artists that still infuse their releases with some good old heart and soul.
For more than a decade, Erykah Badu has kept the soul in R&B. She taught us how to go "On and On", waxed poetically about the next life time and gave women everywhere an anthem in "Tyrone". This year, she returns with her third studio effort, New Amerykah.
Her latest effort finds Ms. Badu exploring a variety of musical styles the end result being a cohesive album that comes off as a cross between a coffee house poetry session and a smoky bar band jamming into the late hours. Amerykah's lead single, the 9th Wonder produced "Honey" is oddly left off the initial track listing and is served up as a bonus track.
With an assist from jazz legend Roy Ayers, "Amerykahn Promise" is a blast from the past, borrowing inspiration from Blaxploitation era movies. The tracks promise of "more action, more excitement" and "more everything" is an accurate description of the disc's contents. While Erykah is hailed for her singing skills, she tries her hand at rhyming on "The Healer", an ode to the "Love of My Life, Hip Hop". She shouts out the late J Dilla while proclaiming that "Hip Hop is bigger than my niggas/Hip Hop/is bigger than religion." The latter line may outrage religious conservatives and add more fuel to the fire that Hip Hop is the devil's music, but over the Madlib track, it sounds damn good. On "Me", Erykah crafts one of her most personal songs to date. Dubbing it her "last interview," she sounds at peace discussing personal aspects of her life, including her legs getting thick, her two babies by "different dudes", God, and a host of other topics.
The beauty of Amerykah is that Badu is effortlessly able to sound at home over the vastly different beats.
"My People" provides the album's one questionable track. Badu relies too much on the production and repeats "hold on my people" throughout the three plus minute song. While the beat is good, "My People" would sound great live in concert. In the car or on the couch at home? Not so much.
While the album scores points for its heavy social commentary, some of the skits grow tiresome. She recovers quickly with "Soldier", shouting out everybody from protesters ("to my folks on the picket line/don't stop til you change they mind") to Hurricane Katrina victims ("got love for my folks baptized when the levees broke"). It's a call to action and an acknowledgment of the soldiers on various battle fronts... and it'll even make you bob your head. "That Hump" resembles and old school love ballad, but the hump isn't that of another man, but rather getting over drug use, while "Telephone" is a mellow, yet somber farewell to Dilla.
At just 11 tracks and less than an hour of total running time, the album is a roller coaster that takes the listener on a number of different twists and turns which are as eclectic as Badu's personality. One thing is clear, New Amerykah is unorthodox, unconventional, and may take a while to grow on an audience that feasts on a steady diet of pop culture. However, in an era of disposable music, this one will stand the test of time.