Erykah Badu’s latest offering is one of the year’s most anticipated releases for me. A long-time fan, Mama’s Gun changed my perception of the world. Carrying on the artist’s tradition of bridging personal reflection with political awareness, 2008′s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) evinced the work of a maturing artist and mother with an insurrectionist’s heart. Released during the twilight of the Bush Administration and somewhat of a musical departure with its use of digital composition and recording software, Badu linked the political climate to the addiction and disease that destroyed many people of color during the “greed is good” Reagan years. Sometimes, as with TV on the Radio’s 2008 release, Dear Science, Badu suggested possibilities for change. But most of these moments came from within and not out of hoping a political leader would make any profound difference for the citizenry.
While 4th World War should be judged on its own merits, another reason it was so interesting was that it was the first installment of a two-part series. And if this album was so forward-thinking and challenging, what lies ahead in part two?
The answer will be the focus of this entry. Released at the end of March, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) was preceded by a controversial music video for lead single “Window Seat.” My first introduction to the song was about a week prior to the video’s release. She performed the song with The Roots on Jimmy Fallon, and I was pumped.
Some reviewers have been disheartened by this album, which basically focuses on a disintegrating romatic relationship. Jody Rosen claims it’s too consciously strange at times and is lacking in many actual songs, which is a claim I think you could make about 4th World War upon first listen. Jessica Hopper believes the album’s inward focus lacks the energy and cultural relevance that propelled the series’ first offering.
While I’m an admirer of both critics, I think Oliver Wang‘s assessment most closely mirrors my thoughts. While 4th World War may have been more outwardly political and Return of the Ankh more personally reflective and at times self-pitying, I find Badu to be consistent, and her newest release only bolsters my opinion. Going back to Baduizm and including Worldwide Underground, Badu’s oft-overlooked follow-up to Mama’s Gun, all of her albums contain moments of self-reflection and political consciousness (sometimes in the same song, as on “Other Side of the Game,” “…& On,” and “Danger”) celebrations of love, and outpourings of grief (Mama’s Gun‘s “Orange Moon,” “In Love With You,” and “Green Eyes”). Her albums are also punctuated with skits and asides that suggest that Badu is at once strange, silly, and smart (“Afro” and “Amerykahn Promise,” for starters).
All of these moments can be found here. There’s reflections on the personal and professional juggling that Badu tires of in “Window Seat.” “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)” focuses on capitalism in ways that to me recall Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings protest “Money” and P!nk’s “Stupid Girls,” which mockingly indicts status-obsessed starlets. But these concerns have always been in Badu’s mind.
Album opener “20 Feet Tall” features Badu reminding herself that she is strong enough to get over her heartache. Studio riff “You Loving Me” is an example of Badu’s self-deprecating humor that may have been cut from another artist’s album out of a need to showcase more polished, “important” work. And closer “Out My Mind, Just In Time” recalls the wordplay and drama of “Green Eyes” though is messier, more emotionally conflicted, and ends in discordance that recalls Joanna Newsom’s “Does Not Suffice,” from another great 2010 break-up record, Have One on Me. I also think the last track is a promise of things to come: Badu may be wounded for now, but she’s got unfinished business to tend to.
And while 4th World War wasn’t as lavish a production, all of her albums show a clear indebtedness to funk, soul, and jazz in their arrangements. They also feature hip hop’s common practice of sampling (revisit “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)” or take a look at her production team for clearer evidence of Badu’s fandom). As Wang points out in his review, samples provide multiple layers of meaning that gesture toward the time in which Badu came of age as well as her influences and personal history.
I’d also like to reclaim the break-up album a bit, as women have made art out of them, processing personal feelings with little filter and suggesting how power dynamics are gendered in heterosexual couples. Joni Mitchell did it with Blue. Björk did it with Homogenic. As with Mama’s Gun, I think Badu is continuing in that tradition.
Finally, while its contents may lack obvious political content, I think Badu and Kyledidthis created visually stunning and connotatively loaded album art. On the cover, Badu is drawn as a robot — perhaps the robot girl she sings as in “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)”. Black female artists have referenced the cyborg and the android in their work, notably Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, and Janelle Monáe. Cultural critic Steven Shaviro neatly unpacks the potential connotations of Elliott and Kim identifying as cyborgs in his essay “Supa Dupa Fly: Black Women as Cyborgs in Hiphop Videos.” In a culture that privileges whiteness and still clings to racist ideologies, whether consciously or not, black women especially have been dehumanized because of presumptions about their sexuality and pressures to abide by Anglo/Eurocentric beauty standards.
Robot Badu confronts her potential audience on the cover, her gaze direct. Human Badu emerges from her skull, naked, sitting in grass, holding a tuning fork, and under a tree with branches that spell her name. Surrounding the robot is the flora that continues to grow amidst human-made weapons, airplanes, government buildings, and foreclosed houses that accompanied images of dead babies, fast food, television, and drugs on 4th World War‘s cover. While nature is long associated with female identity, Badu acknowledges her continual presence in both worlds. This album’s growing on me, and evidence that one of pop music’s most original artists is herself still evolving.