Quick, name a magus of the female persuasion, a black sorceress who wields sound like a talisman. The first image we have of Erykah Badu is her calmly walking on stage during the summer of 1997, lighting a series of candles to begin the ceremony. She would summon ghosts: Billie Holliday, the Nation of the Gods and the Earths, scruffy B-boys on a street corner. Her band on her debut Baduizm (Kedar/Universal Motown, 1997), it is often neo-soul locus the Roots played balletic grooves at a languid pace. She was a strangely beautiful apparition, a high priestess of soul.
Ever since, Badu has embraced and chafed at her mystical reputation. In 1998 she appeared in the mediocre coming-of-age flick The Cider House Rules as guess what? a voodun priestess. Meanwhile her romances with Andre 3000, Common, and, lately, Texas rap prospect Jay Electronica (with whom she recently had a child) have occasionally made her a target of the hip-hop paparazzi. She’s bragged in interviews of her prowess as a mackstress; other times, she’s refused to comment on her private life.
On last year’s Universal/Motown release New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Badu finally seems at peace with her eccentricities. Past albums exhausted her former glories for fresh inspiration: 2003’s Worldwide Underground (Motown) included "Danger," which opens with a refrain from Baduizm‘s second single, "Otherside of the Game." Its intro track "World Keeps Turnin’" returns to the "on and on" lullaby of "On & On," Baduizm‘s Five Percenter-quoting breakout single ("And on and on and on, my cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone"). New Amerykah doesn’t look backward. Its starkly illustrated theme a woman standing strong amid a world roiling in war and chaos uneasily imagines the future present.
"This year I turn 36," Badu sings on the elegiac "Me." "Damn it seems it came so quick, my ass and legs have gotten thick. It’s all me." Thankfully Badu hasn’t settled into an adult contemporary middle-age, singing baby-making ballads for grown-ups. Few of her 1990s peers kept pace: last year, Spin magazine noted that D’Angelo, Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, and others from the neo-soul generation have mostly disappeared from view. But while Maxwell is drawing SRO audiences as he tours the country in preparation for BLACKsummers’night‘s July 7 release, and D’Angelo plans a similar comeback in the fall, it’s doubtful either will match Badu’s fiercely creative restlessness.
For New Amerykah, she turns to her artistic sons and daughters, musicians who used her blazing example to reinvigorate underground soul. The L.A. music collective Sa-Ra Creative Partners helm several tracks and 9th Wonder produces "Honey," a luscious love song that closes New Amerykah on an optimistic note. Wiggy soul-jazz aesthete Georgia Anne Muldrow appears on "Master Teacher," a heartbreaking yearning for positive influences in the black community. "A beautiful world is hard to find," sings Muldrow. "What if there was no niggas, only master teachers? I’d stay woke."
"Master Teacher" has been viewed as a tribute to Dr. Malachi Z. York, an esoteric philosopher whose mix of Egyptology, Islam and other pan-African ideas influenced Badu and other hip hop and R&B artists in the 1990s. (He was arrested and convicted for child molestation in 2004, and is currently serving a life sentence.) But without blunting the song’s original intent many of "Master Teacher" York’s supporters believe he’s the target of a government conspiracy it seems clear that Badu is the master teacher. Throughout her career, Badu has demonstrated a knack for communicating hardcore black ideologies in universal terms, educating and subverting her mainstream audience. She has always worked in alchemical ways. But with the arrival of New Amerykah, she finally turned the focus away from herself.
"Humdililah, Allah, Jehovah, Yaweh, Dios, Maat, Jah, Ras Tafari, fire, dance sex music, hip hop," Badu sings on "The Healer." "It’s bigger than religion, hip hop. This one is for Dilla."
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