Monday, 10 March 2008

ERYKAH BADU: Telephone

The factor most noticeable throughout New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), the first album by Erykah Badu in some five years, is the marching rhythm which underlies, in various forms of disguises, most of its dozen tracks. It's quite a while since such militancy made itself known in mainstream R&B (as opposed to pre- and post-Kanye rap), and its nearly perfect mixture of anger and tenderness is the rarest of combinations in current pop.

In case you fell asleep halfway through the above paragraph I have to report that this record is a major, major work of black protest, as enraged as Shepp, as devious as the Chambers Brothers, as crouched in worry as Riot Sly, as delicate as Jimi - it was recorded in the Electric Lady studios, and the ghost of Hendrix stalks the record's darkened corridors; consider as you must the extraordinary coda to "Twinkle," where the sweet everythings of "they keep us undereducated sick & deprived/they end up in blood" are succeeded by a weightless guitar interval, performed by the Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, over which guest Bilal utters an ancient chant which gradually gets mangled up in increasing distortion before it gives way to Spartacus-like proclamations, the speech which I hope Obama will eventually make; behind his climactic "I'm a human being dammit! My life has value!," Omar turns the pedal and feedback higher and higher until we are in "Star Spangled"/Woodstock territory; screams and growls and howls.

Certainly the Roy Ayers-produced opener "Amerykhan Promise" sounds like the most explosive and righteous opening to any recent album; over snappingly lethal funk licks, Badu pledges herself to do right by America ("I'll love you tooth for tooth and eye for eye") while both she and her child are menacingly heckled throughout the track by the harsh voice of officialdom; Customs Office as big pimping ("We take your history and make it a modern mystery," "Give me a brain tissue sample - that might be good for later"); deliberately frightening.

Otherwise, the revolution is stated in an artfully subdued fashion; the quite gorgeous tiptoe through the midnight landmines that is "The Healer" where over distended koto and celeste notes and sampled war chants ("Kono Samourai") Badu is serenely confident of her people's eventual triumph ("I told you we ain't dead yet...we been livin' thru your internet") even as a ticking clock turns into a revving warplane motor. Again, the hint of Hendrix's "Angel" cries with quietened joy far in the background. Eddie Kendricks' "My People Hold On" is turned upon itself and becomes an electro-march, 1987 drum machine out of synch with 1983 PacMan ping pong bleeps, its pledges all swallowed into a backwards breath, out of which emerges a morning call and abruptly harsh radio static.

There are glorious stretches of flotation R&B and jazz-funk hauntology (absolutely justified in this context) with gorgeous Rotary Connection chord changes and aqueous Bob James Fender Rhodes ripples; I could bathe in the serrated spa of "Me" forever, even when, right after it namechecks Farrakhan, it changes into a scat/trumpet unison (Roy Hargrove) which could have come straight out of Was (Not Was)' "The Sky's Ablaze."

The idea of utopia is never discarded - as readers alert enough to know of unheralded but important recent precedents such as The Healing by the Strange Fruit Project or As If We Existed by Solliloquists Of Sound will already know - and even as Badu does the rollcall of those to be saved over the "Strawberry Fields" mellotrons and flutes of "Soldier" (the boys in the Iraqi fields, the picket lines, the girls on prescription pills) she keeps the Gaye/Mayfield breeze of optimism alive and active, as the "Freddie's Dead" elements which seep through and under "Master Teacher" confirm ("A beautiful world I'm trying to find").

The beauty of this magnificent record resides in how its songs always finish in a place distant and unimaginable but still connected from where they started; thus "Master Teacher" turns into a vintage 1973 Stevie Wonder roll of buoyant balladic grace (though the alien electronic voices begin to lurk in its background) and, most profoundly, in "That Hump" where the liquid grind of struggle in the first half is separated by a central explosion of vocal torment from Badu, leading to a gorgeous brass/organ-driven ballad section through which she gradually collapses on endless reiterations of the phrase "tired of this dope," her vibrati and instabilities becoming very reminiscent of the Prince of "Adore." The suffocating "The Cell" imagines Betty Davis scatting over Jack Johnson and remixed by A Tribe Called Quest with odd interjections of petrol station synths and a hook of "shitty-damn-damn-baby-bang" of which Scritti would have been proud, or at the very least pleased. The brass band fanfares of "Real Thang" step effortlessly onto the menacing post-Whitfield/Temptations escalator ("I think you'd better tell your soldiers to FALL BACK!"), while the regularly detonating "Honey" (complete with "We Don't Talk Anymore"-style sudden mains switch-off) is glorious post-SOS Band handclap-friendly soul-pop.

But it is on "Telephone" that Badu digs deeper and hurts the deepest; it is a slow, patient seven minute plus elegy to J Dilla, apparently written the day after his funeral, and it is heartbreaking, beginning with phantom sirens, electric piano ripples, guitar scrapes and eventually a peaceful procedural of bass (played by Michael Elizondo) and a feather bed of flutes. Badu doesn't say much apart from the incantations needed - "Just fly away to heaven brother, make a place for me brother, put in a word for me" - but the grief is palpable and tangible and the music so beautiful as to make one want to head away from the earthly for good. Throughout, Mike Chavarria's guitar weeps the gentlest of tributes to Hendrix; and then the dignified backing chorus and handclaps increase the song's intensity - what a contrast to the mechanical PASSION button which such things signify in mainstream pop - as Badu sings, "Celebrate your life - OH! I love you!" - but even she collapses; starting at 6:12 she embarks on a literally breath-taking forty second emotional breakdown of mourning using only the expressions "mmmm" and "ooh" and turning them into an otherwise inarticulable sadness, almost in one unbroken breath. At the end, after her mumbled "thank...thank you" and tolling bells, even her producer and backing musicians sound scared of such intensity, and one almost regrets that the album doesn't end here (though "Real Thang" is listed only as a bonus track, and "Honey" is not listed at all, so perhaps that was the original intention).

However, this is a vital and unmissable document - there are further instalments to come, Rufus/Want-style - and unreservedly recommended to those who want to listen to where soul music is actually going in 2008 rather than clinging to whitening memories of what it might have sounded like in 1968. The forward march continues, with or without anyone's permission.