No. 5: Erykah Badu, “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)”
As Idolator vets may remember, my mother has been a hardcore R&B fanatic through every format change, from the days of worn Philly International vinyl to the CD-Rs of mod urban radio hits that she now forces me to provide like a soul-slinging street dealer. At heart she’s a classicist, but she’s also an Erykah Badu fan, one who enjoys the odd, slo-mo stoner funk of Worldwide Underground as much as the comfy, terra cognita qualities of Baduizm. For me, my mom’s thumbs-up for New Amerykah cemented Badu’s near-singular status as a boundary-buster you can still spin for your history-minded elders—and underlined how rare such figures are in any 21st-century pop genre.
Look, New Amerykah’s forward-thinking eccentricities have been praised half to death since the first tracks hit blogs early this year. Kanye may be a genius—okay, he is a genius, sorta—but it’s odd that critics are touting his electro-warbling dog’s dinner as some kinda palette-expansion for urban radio in the year of New Amerykah Part One. Badu’s scope extends so far beyond “digi-distortion and Daniel Powter” that it’s unreal: crazed gutbucket funk stuffed with experimental vocal horseplay; eerie Far Eastern hip-hop topped with improvised-sounding quasi-songs; airy throwbacks to ’70s soul with Dilla-fied rhythmic jitters. (For starters.) Badu’s self-dissection lacks the ego-engorged glibness of her college-spurning, casually misogynistic peer, and in a singularly shitty socioeconomic year, she sold down-and-out, day-to-day life as hard as she wagged a mystical finger at new jacks who paid more attention to strip clubs than stump speeches; dismissed consumption-drunk gangstas who name-checked while missing her point(s); and refuted an industry happy to squeeze modern African-American music through the current pinhole parameters of MTV Jams.
And yet for all her foreboding trips down post-rap and out-jazz rabbit holes, Badu also pens warmly goofy, horns-and-all tributes to the excesses of the funkateers who reared her. The airy “Me” may end with caterwauling singsong straight off a first-wave Rough Trade LP, but until then it should thrill moms and dads who grew up in the era of Roberta Flack, at least as much as “The Healer” speaks to sons and daughters steeped in RZA loops and Stones Throw oddballs. Not always easy listening but rife with a humor that belies its difficult rep, New Amerykah rejects post-pubescent R&B’s focus group flattening and remains the one 2008 album I’d recommend to any listener, regardless of race, age, or genre partisanship.