They say that eyes are the windows to the soul. With Erykah Badu, however, it may be wiser to go directly to the hair. Badu habitually uses it as an extension of her art — wrapped, tied, dyed, or magnificently Afroed — but on New Amerykah’s illustrated cover, it literally contains a multitude: fetuses, dollar signs, raised fists, weapons, syringes, flowers… Apparently, she’s got a lot on her mind.
Ever since her multiplatinum 1997 debut, Baduizm, Badu has cultivated the air of a mild musical eccentric, unusual but acces¬sible. She is both earth mama and mystic, a Billie Holiday jazz-rasp queen with a tangy Southern drawl and a penchant for hip-hop boys (she’s been linked to Common and OutKast’s André 3000). On Amerykah, she joins forces with a disparate group of collaborators, 67-year-old jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers and DJ/rapper/producer Madlib (Talib Kweli, Ghostface Killah) among them. Ayers helms the wonderfully bizarre opening track, ”Amerykahn Promise” — a horn-filled tribute (or is it a retort?) to the blaxploitation anthems of the ’70s — in which she breathes, ”I’ll give you my eyes/I’ll give you my ears/I’ll give you my hands,” and pledges her lips, tongue, thighs…”damn near anything you want.”
Madlib, meanwhile, brings an undulating, snake-charmer menace to the atmospheric hymn ”The Healer (Hip Hop).” Back in 2006, rapper Nas declared that hip-hop was dead; in 2008, Erykah claims ”it’s bigger than religion?bigger than the government.” With her it sounds not like a boast but a fortune-teller’s promise. ”Me,” built on gentle beats and muted horns, is perhaps Badu’s most fully realized attempt at autobiography: ”Ev¬erything around you see/The ankhs, the wraps, the plus degrees…It’s all me.” She also freely says she’s ”had two babies [with] different dudes” and laments that at 37, ”my ass and legs have gotten thick.” Badu sings with a graceful self-accep¬tance that would do Mary J. Blige proud, but she delivers it with an easy humor Blige has never shown. Madlib also guides the breezy, midtempo charmer ”My People,” while ”Soldier 7” serves up a lyrical state-of-the-union update on Marvin Gaye’s ”What’s Going On.” The portrait of urban blight that follows, ”The Cell,” does the same with Stevie Wonder’s ”Living for the City.”
It’s odd, then, that ”Honey,” the album’s bonus track, is also its first single. The song’s squiggly bass line and cute but inane sentiments (”Honey, you so sweet/Sugar got a long way to catch you”) are perhaps the safest, least interesting efforts on the album. Thankfully, Badu spent 10 other tracks showing us exactly what she can do. A-