I'm not predisposed to like Erykah Badu like Rich is. His description of her first album as " dinner-party music fit for an Oprah soirée" sounds right, although whether he means a soiree hosted by Oprah or one at which guests watch Oprah's show I'm not sure; it's not my idea of a rootin'-tootin' good time. Still, in that it's not charmless. I doubt that at this point I'll hear much of a tune on New Amerykah Part One's "My People" or am prepared to dismiss without considerable unease the muffled, muddled shout-out to Louis Farrakhan on the otherwise remarkable "Me"; there's a post that needs writing -- a sympathetic one -- about purported black American visioniaries like Badu and Barack Obama waffling when it comes to this horrible person.
NAPO reminds me of Digable Planet's Blowout Comb: a heady, dense, smoky, often meandering if not redundant stew in which its creators are trying to figure out what they want to say in the act of recording. In this sense it's a "meta-commentary," as Rich says. I'm still soaking in this stuff, but after a dozen listens I'm prepared to say that it's a better album than the Digable's worthy effort, which for all its considerable finesse seemed like a tour rather than a habitation; it wasn't an immersion. The one-two punch of "Soldier" and "The Cell" are two of the sharpest tunes ever written about the difficulty of empowerment -- how it fails to transcend itself as a campaign slogan until you're willing to accept responsibility for your heritage and its/your mistakes, which we all know is no easy trick."Honey" reminds me of Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You" -- unremarkable in its face, but the artists' brief distillation of what the mass audience thinks is so great about them. Call it Badu's Audacity of Hope compared with "The Cell"'s Dreams of My Father.
It doesn't all work, but it's the most impressive album I've heard this year, and it sounds great blasting out of car speakers (what a bottom this thing's got). In 1997 Badu, with her turban and high, pinched Lady Day mannerisms, was lauded for how different she sounded from Blige and Whitney, honored as much for not being Blige and Whitney. Although I still find her voice affectless, I see the beginnings of an aesthetic strategy: the voice's detachment is Badu's way of mitigating the impact of her more incoherent moments. A risk, assuredly: it doesn't assuage the Farrakhan shout-out mentioned earlier. But now she reveals herself to be an artist whose genuine eccentricities are hardening into something deeply strange, and we expect deeply strange artists to say batshit-crazy stuff.