Assisted Listen: Erykah Badu's 'New Amerykah' With the release of New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War), Erykah Badu has an album New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones says is worth another listen.


Assisted Listen: Erykah Badu's 'New Amerykah'

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(Soundbite of song "Amerykhan Promise")

Unidentified Man: More action.

(Soundbite of punching)

Unidentified Man: More excitement.

(Soundbite of futuristic laser gun)

Unidentified Man: More everything.

Ms. ERYKAH BADU: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.


That's the first thing, when you plug in to Erykah Badu's newest release, "New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)." It's a play on words there. America is spelled the way Badu spells her first name, A-M-E-R-Y-K-A-H, and the sounds are new and old at the same time. When we previewed "New Amerykah" a few weeks back on our New Music Tuesday roundup, we didn't have the whole album, frankly.

But now we do, and Badu's musical progression deserves more of our ears and brain space. So today, we present another edition in our occasional series, Assisted Listen, Erykah Badu. Sasha Frere-Jones reviewed "New Amerykah" for the New Yorker Magazine, and he is here to help us with our Assisted Listen. Hi, Sasha.

Mr. SASHA FRERE-JONES (Pop Music Critic, New Yorker Magazine): Hello, Alison.

STEWART: So, if you were somebody who bought that incredibly commercially successful "Baduizm" a decade ago, and then you picked up this record, would you be satisfied? Would you be overwhelmed? Confused?

Mr. FRERE-JONES: If you had heard nothing in-between...

STEWART: Nothing in between.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: I think you might be a little bit confused. I don't think it would go badly, but you would be thrown off. I mean, most of the instruments - a large chunk of the instruments that are on that first record, and that sound, are just gone. I think there are artists, a lot of them are close to Erykah Badu's age, who are beginning to realize that with the collapse of not just the music business, but of hit radio, there's no consensus place to go, other than "American Idol" to have a hit.

So there's really - if you've got an organic audience who loves you, as she does, because she's toured really extensively in the last few years, even when she wasn't putting out records she kept playing, which is really smart because it always works, basically. She has an audience now that's going to stick with her and she can't get a huge radio hit.

So why even try to make that record because what would that hit even be now, unless you are the one Ciara or the one Beyonce of that year? And she knows she's not going to be that person. So, it's actually I think a really good time to make a record this radical. And I think, you know, a chunk of the people who loved "On and On" and those early hits will go with this, maybe some of them won't. I mean, it's a pretty radical record.

(Soundbite of song "Amerykhan Promise")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) American Promise.

STEWART: When she first came out, everybody threw her kind of into the neo-soul of - Wendy Williams always calls them "the crunchy backpack." But on this record, you wrote, she's more an extension of the "black avant-garde vocal pop" of the past. Tell me a little bit about that past so I can listen to this record with an educated ear.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: I think - I mean, the obvious starting point for her, even though it starts beforehand, is with the George Clinton. The album cover looks like a Parliament album cover. She's got - there's an illustration of her on the cover here which has all the kind of crazy detail that Pedro Bell had in the Funkadelic covers.

And then it opens with a track that sounds very much like an old Funkadelic track, but mixed with something he did later in Parliament, where he had all the different goofy voices. The Funkadelic records had those sort of scary, you know, apocalyptic monologues and here she's combining that with the goofy different voices, the high voice and then that menacing whoever that guy is, sort of, police figure, authority figure who's messing with everybody.

(Soundbite of song "Amerykhan Promise")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) American promise. American promise.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) We love to suck you dry.

Ms. BADU: (Singing) Oh no, freedom's here. Promise, promise, American promise.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: So, I think George Clinton is maybe the beginning of that tradition, and then I drew a direct link to D'Angelo's "Voodoo" record because, you know, D'Angelo and Erykah and The Roots all knew each other, and I think, began to form sort of a loose music crew, and they all went - they've all gone sort of further out as they've gotten bigger.

They've not - they've become less conservative. I mean, D'Angelo, sadly, hasn't come back with anything in a long time, but that seems to me like the peak of a certain kind of - you can go back to Marvin Gaye also. People like long, long extended tracks with noises. You don't know where they're coming from.

And I mean, it's a track like "Twinkle" that, you know, has got about two and a half minutes tacked on to the end of synthesizers and talking, and you know, there are people who are not going to have patience for that, although a generation that's come up with electronic music and Radiohead and bands like that probably won't be - might not be fazed at all.

STEWART: Let's talk about the song "Twinkle" since you brought it up. It's almost seven minutes long, and it's a perfect song for this Assisted Listen series because I don't know what to make of this song.


STEWART: Let's play a little bit of the beginning of "Twinkle," and then we'll play a little bit of the end.

(Soundbite of song "Twinkle")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) They don't know the language. They don't know their God. They take what they're given, even when it feels odd.

STEWART: So, it kind of starts off as something that's recognizable, and then...

Mr. FRERE-JONES: It's sound. You can hear it.

STEWART: It's sound. It's got a track. I understand the lyrics, sort of. And then the last couple of minutes...


STEWART: It seems to be ripped off from the movie "Network."

Mr. FRERE-JONES: It is the speech from "Network," although they stop before they get to the most famous part of the speech, the, you know, you're supposed to throw up your window and say you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it anymore, although it's modified. They throw in references to, you know, wheel rims and things that aren't in the original speech, and there's actually no credit to Paddy Chayefsky or anything. So at first, I didn't know what I was hearing and then I checked it and I said OK, it is that speech, which I think is kind of a brilliant thing to drop into the song.

(Soundbite of song "Twinkle")

Unidentified Man: We sit watching our idiot boxes while some local anchorman tells us that today we've had 18 murders and 80 violent crimes, as if that were the way things were supposed to be. We know times are bad. Worse than bad! People are crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going utterly mad, so we never leave our homes. We sit in our comfy abodes...

Mr. FRERE-JONES: And the song itself, I mean, it's - hearing it here on headphones, it's amazing how much stuff is jammed into the background of this thing. And you know, the track is pretty - it's not the most melodious track. So, if you're not following her vocally, you might be futzing with your radio and thinking what's going on here? I think she wants to sort of put you in a state of mind, put you in a mood. She doesn't really do obvious things.

STEWART: I want to pull out a couple of things that you mentioned. I'm with you on the production aspect of this record, and I wasn't really expecting it from Erykah Badu. I don't know why I didn't think it would be this dense, this layered, this many ideas and sounds dovetailed together.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: She hasn't done it that much before, although it starts - I think it starts at the very end of that EP which I - I didn't think worked all the way, but she did a record called "Worldwide Underground." There was a single on that record called "Danger" that I loved, really aggressive, really enormously bass happy.

I remember putting it on and thinking this record has been engineered with more bass than any song I've ever heard. I feel like that track is almost the beginning of this phase where she begins to not want to do the mellifluous Sunday morning, as you said, crunchy backpack stuff, which she only kind of half did, but I mean, she did it.


Mr. FRERE-JONES: You can definitely put on "Baduizm" and make some waffles and no one's going to get upset.

STEWART: And have some soymilk.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: Exactly, and go get your...

STEWART: Hang out and read Mother Jones.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: Get your bag and go to the organic market, which she probably would do.

STEWART: We're talking to Sasha Frere-Jones, who reviewed "New Amerykah" for the New Yorker Magazine. One of the tracks you want us to listen to is called "The Healer," which begins with a list of different religions and then...

Mr. FRERE-JONES: The very first thing is actually the beginning of a prayer, which I'm not going to try to say myself. Even if it's the part that sounds like Humdi Lila.

STEWART: Yeah, let's listen to it.

(Soundbite of song "The Healer")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) Humdi Lila Allah Jehovah Yahweh Dios Ma'ad Jah Rastafara fyah dance, sex, music, hip-hop - it's bigger than religion. Hip-hop is bigger than religion.

STEWART: Now that's a ginormous claim to make, that hip-hop is bigger than religion.


STEWART: Do you think she means it literally?

Mr. FRERE-JONES: I don't think this is a very literal record. I like enormous claims like that. I like that she wants to say that. Maybe that's just my perverse streak. When she's saying bigger, I don't feel like she means it in that sense. I feel like she means it in - I don't know, it's with what it means as a culture. I think she's trying to sort of reclaim an idea of hip-hop more than she's trying to make a comment on religion.

STEWART: Reclaim what idea?

Mr. FRERE-JONES: You know, that it's a cultural force that's not just about, you know, cars and...

STEWART: Clothes...

Mr. FRERE-JONES: Clothes and women who are willing to do anything you ask them to do. And then she ends up with this sort of computer thing about rebooting, refresh, restart, so I feel like I feel in that moment that she's sort of addressing hip-hop itself like it could be bigger or it could be as much as religion, but again, I'm not taking most of this literally.

(Soundbite of song "The Hero")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) You don't have to believe everything you think. We've been programmed. Wake up.

STEWART: One of the things about Erykah Badu, which is hard to ignore, is her self-presentation. I mean, she is quite beautiful. She's quite eccentric. All the way back to from when she used to wear the giant head wraps, to the enormous hair, to the wigs, the cover art clearly makes a reference to it. She's got this giant afro, which is illustrated with everything from syringes, to dollar signs, to fetus, to nuclear power plants, all in her hair.


STEWART: I'm wondering, because her presentation is so bold, do we get anything from this record that's intimate about her?

Mr. FRERE-JONES: I don't think so, and she herself described this as the "cerebral record." It feels to me more like, you know, it's cerebral but it's more like an improvised-cerebral thing. It's not like she came up with, you know, a 12-point plan to save hip-hop and laid it out.

STEWART: Her PowerPoint presentation.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: But it feels like these are all things on her mind and - I mean, not everybody can get away with a record this sort of loose and formless in places.

STEWART: Then there is this contradiction in this record where the bonus track tacked on the end is the most accessible...


STEWART: Pop, R&B song that you could hear on any urban radio station, and have heard on many urban radio stations.


STEWART: The track called "Honey." You know, let's listen to a little bit first.

(Soundbite of song "Honey")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) Honey, yeah, so sweet. It's going to be what it's going to be.

STEWART: So Sasha, what did you think when this song suddenly appears at the end of this record?

Mr. FRERE-JONES: It was actually leaked. So, I heard it first, so I wasn't surprised. If you listen to the album all the way through it then becomes surprising. I don't think - I mean, I don't think it sounds much like R&B now. It sounds like a lot like an older Erykah track. It sounds like something you could have heard it on the first or second record.

She pays an incredible attention to just the quality, you know, of the work itself. So, this is kind of a trifle, but I still like it. It sounds really good loud. It's very squishy and warm, and so, you know, it's a minor tune but it's a fun minor tune. But she obviously put it on the end because she knew it wasn't at peace with the rest of the record.

You know, she finds a lot of different ways to make kind of inaccessible stuff seem very - because she's comfortable with it, and it's not a very aggressive record, it's weird. It's really weird, but it's not really that in your face. It's a kind of laid-back, weird, avant-garde kind of thing.

STEWART: Sasha Frere-Jones reviewed "New Amerykah" for the New Yorker Magazine. Thank you, Sasha.

Mr. FRERE-JONES: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "The Healer")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) Humdi Lila Allah Jehovah Yahweh Dios Ma'ad Jah Rastafara fyah dance, sex, music, hip-hop - it's bigger than religion. Hip-hop is bigger than religion.


So, what's the verdict?

STEWART: I listened to it all weekend.

MARTIN: You did?

STEWART: I listened to this record all weekend long. I'm totally in.


STEWART: It is interesting though that the last single is nothing like the rest of the record. But after listening to that record over and over again, it's sort of like a nice sorbet at the end.

MARTIN: Yeah, like, you got through the hard stuff.


MARTIN: It is challenging, you know.

STEWART: It's got a great video as well. Maybe I'll post the video online, because one of the cool things about the video is it's - you don't see the woman's face, but she's walking through a record store picking up album covers, and Erykah Badu is in all the album covers, like the cover of "Let it Be," the cover of a Minnie Ripperton record. You start to recognize the artwork and it's her in various forms. Grace Jones, she makes a really good Grace Jones. So, as a video art form it's really an interesting way to take a very poppy R&B song, so yeah, I will post that later for people at our blog,

MARTIN: You know, it was interesting. They did a profile on her in the New York Times when this album dropped and it had a picture of her in her Brooklyn apartment, which I was shocked to see is so sparse, so modest.


MARTIN: She's a big star, and she like has got a mattress on the ground, and tapestries on the wall.

STEWART: She's got a little bit bigger spread in Dallas where she's got some kids, but yeah, the Brooklyn apartment, spare. Very spare.

MARTIN: Well, I'm going to do it, too. I think I'll give it a shot. And you know what? We finished an hour. This is the end of the first hour of the Bryant Park Project. You can visit us online all the time at I'm Rachel Martin.

STEWART: And I'm Alison Stewart. This is the BPP from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "The Healer")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) Humdi Lila Allah Jehovah Yahweh Dios Ma'ad Jah Rastafara fyah dance, sex, music, hip-hop - it's bigger than religion. Hip-hop is bigger than religion.

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