A couple of years ago, Erykah Badu's highly politicised psychedelic-soul opus New Amerykah Part One (4th World Order) raised hopes that the "conscious" arm of modern American R&B/hip-hop/ urban music might yet wield a revitalised power to offset that scene's depressingly negative tendencies.
It was, we were told, the first instalment of a prodigious creative outburst which would produce a further two albums in quick succession, New Amerykah Part Two being scheduled to appear just a few months later.
Some hope! While her tardiness is on nothing like the scale of her Soulquarian chum D'Angelo, whose follow-up to the excellent Voodoo has still to appear over a decade later, only the terminally positive would count on Badu's optimistic estimate. The greater disappointment is that the album appears to have little thematic connection with its predecessor, effecting instead a volte-face in which the political content has been supplanted by routine boudoir-soul matters. The change, she explains, represents a more right-brain (emotional) approach. Which may be so – but it still seems like chickening out on her earlier achievement.
This is not to disparage her efforts here, which bring old and new elements together in typical Soulquarian style, from the itchy, Curtis-style Chicago shuffle-groove of "Gone Baby, Don't Be Long" to the stripped-back, languid skeletal funk of "Love", where the groove hangs lazily on the first beat in classic Sly Stone manner, with Badu's vocals like mesmeric vocal incantations. The more submissive slant of the romantic material occasionally leads her into a cutesy little-girl delivery that grates a touch, though the liquid funk groove is some compensation. But Badu is well able to bring a new spin to old matters –witness her reference in "Window Seat" to going "back and forth like Lightnin' Hopkins" – and even manages to turn the impasse of "20 Feet Tall" into a lesson in self-assertiveness: "You built your wall, 20 foot wall, so I couldn't see/But if I get off my knees, I'm 20 feet tall".
The musical settings are as varied as you'd expect from a retinue of co-producers that includes Madlib, James Poyser, 9th Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow and the late J Dilla, with a few surprising strategies disrupting the general mood – as in the blend of harp and synth which introduces the bubblebath-soul groove of "Incense". But at over 10 minutes, the concluding "Out My Mind, Just In Time" is too meandering to justify its three-part status. But this is superior seductive R&B which doesn't insult your intelligence while still turning your head.
Download this: 20 Feet Tall; Window Seat; Gone Baby, Don't Be Long; Love; IncenseReuse content