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.


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.

< prev  1  |  2  |  3  |   next >
Related: Dance, Monkey!: Tracy Morgan, 2008 Listravaganza!, An abridged history of the Roots' collabs, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Marvin Gaye, Racial Issues, Social Issues,  More more >
| More

Most Popular
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   CHARLES JACKSON’S SECOND ACT  |  March 18, 2013
    F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed there were no second acts in American life.
  •   KATE BEYOND TIME: THE KATE MOSS BOOK  |  January 08, 2013
    Almost all models who achieve some degree of fame find themselves blamed for whatever agenda their era's most vocal scold happens to be pushing.
  •   INTERVIEW: NINA HOSS ON BARBARA  |  December 18, 2012
    Quietly over the last 11 years, one of the strongest collaborations in contemporary cinema has been developing between the German director Christian Petzold and the actress he often chooses to star in his films, Nina Hoss. Petzold and Hoss's latest collaboration, Barbara , is their richest and finest film.
    With porn so privately accessible now, we don't worry about the stigma attached to its consumption, the thought of someone pausing to peruse the art in front of an adult movie theater (hell, the thought of an adult movie theater) instead of just ducking in before being seen is almost touching.
  •   BUNNY YEAGER’S NAKED AMBITION  |  October 05, 2012
    Pin-up photography has served so many purposes — outlet for male desire; outlet for feminist ire; retro kitsch emblem — that it has barely been talked about as photography.

 See all articles by: CHARLES TAYLOR