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Sometimes a single song on an album crystallizes the entire album’s themes and sonic ambitions, illuminating everything else around it. It becomes the pump irrigating all the other tracks with deeper meaning. And sometimes a single line within a song serves the same function on a smaller scale. “Soldier,” on Erykah Badu’s masterful 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), is that song, and the line doing double duty is, “And if you think about turning back, I got the shotgun for your back.” That’s Erykah’s shout-out to Harriet Tubman and her tack for dealing with slaves she’d helped escape, but whose fears of what freedom might mean (and cost) gave them cold feet, making them consider voluntarily returning to bondage. Those words very much resonate in the here and now.
Almost every song on New Amerykah Part One can inspire long discussions, starting with opening cut “Amerykahn Promise,” a brusque lancing of the American dream after it’s been distilled to its essence (consumerism, materialism, shiny object distractions) and had its human costs tallied. Blaring horns, jittery guitar and high-octane female Greek-chorus backing singers couch an exhorting male voice (Badu’s computerized vocals, which bring to mind Richard Pryor’s scheming, hustling Wiz, the impotent man behind the curtain in the 1978 film The Wiz), with the whole thing evoking the vibe of ’70s Blaxploitation flicks.
What the album’s song cycle does beautifully and powerfully is dissolve the lines between the political and the Political, the personal and the communal.
Badu also addresses the poison darts that have been thrown at her life choices (“Had two babies, different dudes / and for them both my love was true / This is my last interview,” from the track “Me”). She continues the confessional tone into tracks like “That Hump,” which opens with a weary Erykah singing, “If I could get over that hump, then maybe I will feel better . . .” There’s an unresolved tension in the song’s mechanical, artfully plodding groove, with simmering keys laid lover the repetitive beats. All of it conveys the seeming endlessness of struggle, the psychological grind of poverty and living check-to-check, especially when people worse off than you depend on you for some measure of support (“My brother’s sleeping on the floor . . .”).
Erykah’s cohorts in all of this are a who’s who of some of the most visionary hip-hop / R&B / jazz / unclassifiable producers and musicians currently working: Madlib, Sa-Ra, 9th Wonder, Georgia Ann Muldrow, James Poyser, Questlove, and the great Roy Ayers—artists whose idiosyncratic explorations of sound and texture are prioritized over their celebrity status. The work they do here—from the urgently sinewy funk of “Master Teacher” and its internal segue into a breezy jazz backdrop, to the sparkling, finger-snapping accompaniment of “The Cell”—is seamlessly interlocked so it all fits into a single, unified piece of art.
With her gorgeous wordlplay, Erykah’s hip-hop roots are evident throughout New Amerykah Part One. (She really is one of the genre’s VIP figures, though she flows well outside and beyond simple categorization.) She’s evocative and witty, bluntly political and thoughtfully poetic. On “Soldier,” for example, the war in Iraq, police brutality, generational poverty and its looping effect, and government indifference to the victims of Hurricane Katrina are all tied together in a call for unity and community that sidesteps being corny precisely because of its unflinching honesty in laying out the world in which we live. So this is an album of its time and place, but also for the world and forever. It deserves to be mentioned alongside game-changing works of Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy and N.W.A. It also—once and for all—should establish Badu as a musical daughter of Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba.