The cyborg and the sistah

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  March 17, 2008

Given all this, it’s hard to see the sense in Jackson’s continuing determination to sell her work as an ongoing sexual diary. The gadgety slickness and packaging and anonymity of Discipline is far removed from the pleasure or surrender or rage or delirium of sex. It’s like a condom you order from the Sharper Image catalogue.

insideERYKAH__Photo_NewAmer

On the other hand, in a recent front-page interview for the New York Times Sunday Arts & Leisure section, Erykah Badu talked freely about how badly she’d needed a bath after an uninterrupted couple of days in the studio. And the photos accompanying the article showed her in her big freaky Afro wig on the mattress in her one-room Brooklyn apartment, tchotchkes and electrical wires on the floors behind her, the walls a collage of photos and art work. It looked like a place an art student or musician would live in, a DIY collage meant to enshrine cherished icons and add up to a portrait of the person who assembled it.

And the genuine pleasure of New AmErykah is that it’s a sonic version of that approach. There are the usual elements we associate with retro-minded R&B. I never tire of that welcoming aural dirt meant to simulate the clicks and scratches of battered vinyl. More important, there’s that unmistakable feel of early- and mid-’70s funk, the sound of black pop in the age between the glory days of soul and the onset of disco. Badu’s vocals are high, feline, with a slight rasp at the back of her throat providing a nice marbling of aural abrasion, often muttered as if she were ruminating over the words as she says them. And because the lyrics can be as free-associational as “underwater, stove top, blue flame, scientist come out with your scales up get baptized in the ocean of the hungry. . . . ,” her vocal approach adds to the hallucinatory aura, the sense that we’re listening to her inner monologue.

New AmErykah’s muzzy groove, its manifesto of black self-determination in the face of institutionalized and societal racism (“My People” consists entirely of Badu singing “Hold on, my people” over conga and talking drums), its overall feeling of being both a direct statement and an oblique one, marks it as one of the children of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. But whereas on Riot Sly Stone sounded as if every note played or sung were a product of hard, killing experience, Badu is often speechifying. She flirts with theories about dope being a deliberate plan to decimate the black community. On “Me” she even pays tribute to NOI’s head racist and anti-Semite with the line “I salute you Farrakhan.” But there’s no denying she sings it beautifully.

New AmErykah comes at a strange moment. The fact that an African-American has a good chance of being our next president is proof that the problems Badu sings of here aren’t ineradicable. And yet an Obama victory wouldn’t end those problems. And that’s part of the record’s formidable strength — the acknowledgment of what hasn’t changed simultaneous with the refusal to believe it always need be so.

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