The story goes that when Marvin Gaye was making What’s Going On, Barry Gordy sent Smokey Robinson to check up on him to see how the artist was progressing. Smokey became one of Gaye’s staunchest supporters after hearing the results, an ally for Gaye. Gordy wanted nothing to do with the album, feeling it was uncommercial and wouldn’t find support at radio. Of course, Gordy found out how wrong he really was as What’s Going On was not only a hit for Marvin, but also a statement for the times and a creative highpoint.
Gaye told Robinson, “The album wasn’t done by me…It was done by God.”
I wonder if Erykah Badu faced similar concerns and criticism when she presented her fourth album, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War to Motown. Record sales are woefully down and Badu hasn’t had a major hit in years, so it would come as no surprise if some of Universal’s executives were left scratching their heads when they heard the final product.
It’s a challenging listening, often feeling unfinished and inconsistent. There are moments where arrangements trainwreck into one another, when songs feel out of sequence, and when Badu herself feels like she’s holding back. All of this may lead you to believe that New Amerykah is a flawed effort, and to some extent it is, but it also stands as one of the best albums of this year and one of the greatest soul albums in quite some time. It may not be on the same level as What’s Going On, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the two albums were certainly channeled from the same source.
The title implies some kind of grandiose theme and even a “part two” to consider later. There is some talk that the second part was supposed to be wrapped up by now and it appears that the follow-up is on some kind of hiatus, presumably as Badu takes time with a new addition to her family. So we’re forced to examine part one as an isolate piece and, even if there isn’t anything else to compliment it, the holes within it—the unfinished business if you will—lend an enormous sense of humanity to a record that is a very spiritual endeavor.
It’s a soundtrack of the end of George W. Bush‘s tenure, a temperature of his damaging legacy and the people that his presidency callously left behind. Badu provides no quarter with her lyrics, dumping nearly every socio-political topic from today’s headlines within the album’s hour-long running time. It’s easy to insist that they all will resonate deeper within the black community but the fact is—particularly as this country has slid deeper down into uncertainty since the album was first released—this is an album that should resonate with any American, regardless of race.
While What’s Going On is adorned with beautiful arrangements. Badu decorates hers with minor keys, electronic blips, chants and repeated phrases, jazz arrangements, and just about anything else that would qualify as commercial suicide. The music alone will make your neck stiff after enduring all of the left turns New Amerykah throws at you.
The real divider is the arrangements themselves, as they provide equal footing to both arguments that they’re either half-baked or half-finished.
Because of this, your perspective will change often. Over the ten months since it was released, I’ve alternated from one side to the other frequently. I’ve finally reached my own conclusion that it is indeed a major piece of work: that Badu isn’t merely entertaining her own indulgences, but instead, heeding to a higher power that’s either telling her the record is finished or that it needed to get out quickly so that people could digest its themes at their own pace.
What brought me to praise it was the recent economic turmoil, the presidential elections, and the general feeling that we are at a point where the only place to go next is up. New Amerykah documents this low ebb, just as What’s Going On documented the social ills of America in the early ’70s, and as a result, it may take years before we fully understand the legacy that Badu’s album presents.
Also, she has thrown so many themes here that to try and perfect it would be next to impossible. There’s no way that anyone, including Marvin Gaye, could wrangle the topics and nuances that Badu is gunning for within New Ameryka and knowing this, one must admire her for how close she comes to getting it right.
It starts to sink in with the album’s last two (proper) tracks, “That Hump” and “Telephone.” The first begins over a slow repetitious beat, on par with the same drudgery you face every day. Tired, sluggish, and damn near defeated, Badu musters a laundry list of daily mountains that she has to climb. And how does she cope? With a little bit of weed that slowly turns into a little bit more. The vicious cycle of this isn’t lost on her: while the herb may be playing havoc with her ability to get motivated, the idea of leaving it to face the reality of her surroundings with a clear mind is even more daunting. In the end, she resolves to attempt to tackle her crutch as soon as her brother moves out, once she stops living paycheck to paycheck, the moment she can save enough to stop paying rent and get her own house…the moment she gets over that hump.
“Telephone” is Badu’s memorial to J. Dilla, inspired by the phone call that she received from the producer’s mother after he passed. It’s uplifting at moments (“Just fly away to Heaven brother / Save a place for me”) but the emotional delivery of her performance makes even the most celebratory intentions dimmed by the weight of the subject matter. At the end of it, Badu is so clearly moved by the song that you can hear her exhale and audibly shiver after thanking the other musicians. One of them is so touched by the proceedings that he waits until the last note vanishes, puts his drums sticks on top of the floor tom and says, “I don’t know if I can take this…That was scary.”
It’s obvious that there was something more in that room during the recording session.
There are more examples of the unexplained found throughout New Ameryka: choices, decisions, and those aforementioned forays that seem queer, silly, or curiously unfinished. But when you provide Badu with the faith that obviously fueled New Ameryka you may reach the heavenly bliss that she’s given us here. Because how you perceive it may rest upon in how much faith you have inside of yourself.
Video: Erykah Badu – “Honey”