There's a two part thing about New Amerykah, the first being that it's weird, the second being that it can't really be overstated how weird it is. If you've spent any time reading any of the album's (near universal) positive reviews, it's pretty difficult to encapsulate what the album could possibly sound like, and why it is that so many describe it so differently. That won't change here. Even describing the albums influences comes up short, simply because you'd need all the intellectual references in the music criticism room to catch them all--as far as I've made it, there's Sun Ra, Radiohead's OK Computer, Gil-Scott Heron, any/all hip-hop from the last twenty years, Sly & The Family Stone, George Clinton and his various groups and after that you can pretty much spread the doors open wider and come up with even more. (Which is why there's a cheap n' lazy "all hip-hop" listed.) That's not even all the obvious ones. Obviously, part of the charm and interest in New Amerykah is that all this works--unlike her onetime paramour Common, who tried something similar with Electric Circus and only resulted in producing a couple of somewhat intriguing singles couched in an album that, even looked at kindly, lacked any sort of cohesive structure or lasting interest. (Hell, I liked it fine, but not in the sense that I've wanted to listen to it in years.) While Erykah is clearly a brilliant musician, albeit one with a clearly antagonistic bent--New Amerykah couldn't be any less commercial when cast against the sickeningly dull output by the current spat of "soul" singers who claim her as a peer--New Amerykah is an album rife with talent--Madlib, 9th Wonder and Sa-Ra all get involved, and that's not even half of the production staff. Still, none of those producers could claim to have something like this in their back-catalog, with the possible exception of Madlib, who probably dreams in weird albums.
The ground for the album is set pretty early--movie samples, horn samples, a sultry "ohh" from Badu, and then--well, then the vocal effects, the introduction to the other world that the album contains, and--before Badu starts opening up to show off her impressive range with what might be considered the song's refrain, if you're desperate for terminology--there's a curt, sharp "promise" hissed out from her lower register that cuts through all the clatter. While much of the song treads familiar ground, in that the guitars and overall sound wouldn't be out of place on Maggot Brain, it's still a strange construction of funk reference points. The spoken words, overlaid so they smother some of what's being played spell out, a bizarre introduction to some version of immigrants, ordering "a brain sample" taken from one--it's implied--of the singers, all of whom are clearly Badu, matching herself on multiple vocal tracks, and ending with a strange negotiation with a young girl whose voice is processed through computer effects, making her sound like a Speak & Spell on helium. The closing moments are sequenced right into the beginning of "The Healer", otherwise known as the song where Erykah makes the statement that "it's bigger than religion, hip hop. It's bigger than the government, hip hop," while speak-singing with such a lazy drawl that it sounds like a throwback to some of the early Texan efforts by DJ Screw--flanging and pitch shifts are apparent, but they don't seem to do much with Badu's delivery, it's more like the sound itself has been subdued to match whatever it is she's doing with her voice to achieve the sound. That sort of transition--from a Funkadelic inspired sound with a Thom Yorke spin on the Gil-Scott Heron message delivery to a sludgy, thick song--continues. By the time you make it towards the end of "The Healer" the delivery has changed again, this time with what is assumed to be some kind of pitch manipulation to give Badu's delivery a sort of unnatural wavering quality, and then...and then. The whole album is like this--a massively produced beast of a thing, utilizing a spectrum of the sort of experimentation in electronica that's more often the province of weird Europeans, but--since it's Badu's taste--used to mechanize and maintain soul & funk into something that's as lively as those genres, but still, graphically weird. While there's always going to be a touch of the "sounds like a female D'Angelo" thing to fall back on, due to the similarities in the way the two phrase words and their paralleled mastery of range and voice--the spirit here is more similar to something that, fuck. Bjork would put out something like this, if she didn't spend so much time with Matmos and Eskimos. It just wouldn't be as funky.
The problems with the album--and there are some, or it would be farther up on the list, as it's defiantly odd, yet a total success--can pretty much be laid at the feet, unfortunately, at the lyrics. Whereas Erykah hasn't lost her talent for throwing out some controversial stuff, some of that "I won't tell you what this means, but I know it makes you think," she's still operating from a place that's a bit more navel-gazing than she seems willing to admit. While the album speaks, at multiple points, from the stance of intelligent criticism of racial and global geopolitik, it's a cheap form that fails to reach the sort of heightened level of passion all the production requires. While it's not as dumb as the Nas video for "Sly Fox," where the implication that destroying ones own property--expensive computer equipment--will somehow lead to the downfall of a dumbed down mass media, it's not that far removed; the most resonant advice given to people is that they should "get mad." Well, of course they should. What then? The only answer provided seems to be more of the nonsensical new age philosophizing that Badu likes to throw around--and while that might be Badu's preferred form, the variation on the "never gets old" philosophical argument that "if your revolution won't let me dance, I don't want your revolution," it should be noted that's the Wachowski Brothers level of argument, and Badu's always seemed to have a bit more going on than that. Whereas a song like "The Cell" subverts and ignores this sort of irritation by taking the old school gangster rap way-out by being little more than a lyrical study of how bad things can get "poor man got his back to the door/code white stands for trouble/shots from the po-po...blam, blam," most of the lyrical work here takes the boring--though somewhat understandable tactic--of kicking a flaming barrel down a flight of stairs before attributing everything to an odd explanation of the Hindu concept of godhood, with a dose of feminist monologuing on the side. That's not individual to Badu, obviously--bands like Rage Against The Machine and Pearl Jam built careers out of undergraduate comprehensions of global study, Nas isn't the first rap artist to decide to make a political statement without figuring out what it was going to be first--but when the music, and the construction of music, is this good? It's not that strange to ask for more. Still-on the plus side-Badu's album is one that's so strong, that's so impossible to overpraise, that the lyrics, no matter how cheap they can get, can't do anything to "ruin" it. Like the multitude of samples and vocal effects, Badu can really sing pretty much anything--silly or not, it's going to sound fantastic. That's the problem with being the top of the class though--it may not be fair to expect from her so much, but really: how can you not? When someone is this good, you're always going to end up wondering how much further they can take it.
Caveats aside: New Amerykah Part One stands as one the best works of art that arrived in 2008. Whereas more praise will inevitably be heaped on excellent work from a variety of artists, the simple truth was that this was one of the few of those that took chances, explored form and structure, acknowledged its inspiration, and provided an opportunity to experience something different, something beautiful. At the end of the day, it's all just going to be music--but in a time when the stuff is traded and stolen in seconds over broadband connections, there has to be a moment where somebody--even fuckers on blogs--acknowledge that this was one that mattered.
-Tucker Stone, 2008