Jack Riedy doesn’t believe in the promise.
The greatest honor America grants to pop singers is referring to them by first name only. Sure, there are the pre-existing icons like Prince and Beyonce, but surnames simply aren’t necessary for Marvin, Janet, Sly, Stevie, Missy, Michael, etc. Ten years ago this month, Erykah Badu solidified her spot among the mononyms with an album that envisioned our nation remade in her image: New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War.
The Dallas native debuted in 1997 with Baduizm. On singles like “On and On” and “Next Lifetime,” she blended Five Percenter references with R&B melodies, over slowed down new jack swing rhythms. This potent mix made her a leader in the burgeoning neo-soul genre, and she scored a triple platinum plaque along the way.
2000’s follow-up Mama’s Gun was conceived in the same communal environment that led to Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and D’angelo’s Voodoo, sharing Electric Lady studio space with her fellow Soulquarians. Perhaps inspired by the studio’s sainted patron, Badu added raucous rock energy to reflect the post-Y2K pre-9/11 millennial angst. On 2003’s Worldwide Underground, that energy was gone. After becoming popular enough to appear on Hollywood soundtracks, the rest of the world had caught up. Badu returned to her R&B roots, but what had felt like an entirely new musical route six years prior now felt like her spinning wheels.
After a five year break between releases, Badu took the blend of genres she had tinkered with on her previous projects and spiked it with a whole bottle of syrup. Like her collaborator Madlib said via sample on his own magnum opus, listening to New Amerykah Part One requires one to “consider time as officially ended.” Badu wholeheartedly committed to hip-hop, the great American post-modern form, and used its liquid sense of time to establish herself as an all-timer.
“More action, more excitement, more everything!” A gruff voice opens the album sounding like a movie trailer narrator crackling out of a Zenith TV set. Before the audience has time to settle into their seats, the overture begins with a horn sting. “Amerykahn Promise” then gives way to a chugging groove of wah-wah guitars that sounds straight out of the ‘70s, because it is. Badu performed her new song over the original master tape of “The American Promise,” a 1977 song by Roy Ayers Music Productions.
While vocalists Sharon Matthews and Sibel Thrasher harmonize from the past on “I promise, I promise, you give it to me, I’ll give it to you,” Badu delivers a combination of a sermon, a sales pitch and a safety demonstration in a deepened voice. She’s the swindling spirit of the nation personified. She promises “30 thousand milliwatts of power baby,” but asks that “before exiting the train, please leave your valuables, diamonds, rubies, and pearls, in the cabinet adjacent to the left.” Despite her obvious Baduizms, she does not give herself a writing credit on this track, leaving the only acknowledgement to the crafters of the original gem. It’s sound collage as sensory overload, like being followed by a funk band while running through an airport.
Samples pop up all over New Amerykah as signposts of the past. Second song “The Healer” kicks off with golden age B-boy group World Famous Supreme Team declaring that they’re “coming to you loud and clear” even though Erykah coated their signal in distortion. After that brief reminder of the genre’s origins as dance music for New Yorkers, the song dives headlong into the most avant-garde beat on the record. The descending chimes feel propulsive yet stagnant, like undulating ribbons twirled in a circle.
“The Healer” doesn’t have a beat as much as a pulse. Madlib stays out of the melody’s way, dropping in a sporadic crash to add drama. The shimmering tones are pulled from a 1971 record, a collection of pseudo-Japanese pop music made by two French producers. (One of them later produced Thomas Bangalter, one half of Daft Punk.) Reflective of the sample’s cross-cultural origins, Badu hums an ode to all kinds of deities: “Alhamdulillah, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Dios, Ma’at, Jah Rastafari fyah, dance, sex, music, hip-hop.” She doubles down: “Hip hop. It’s bigger than religion…it’s bigger than the government.” When she played Grant Park for Taste of Chicago in 2015, that was the lyric that she printed on her t-shirts to sell to the whole city.
“This one is for Dilla, hip hop,” Badu continues. “The Healer” contains that lyric, an acknowledgement of the past that marks a loss in the present. Her fellow Soulquarian, J Dilla, died two years earlier at the age of 32. Badu’s sense of loss was so strong that she equated him with hip hop itself. James Yancey’s legacy is indisputable now; Badu and her peers kept it alive long enough for it to solidify.
2008 was an election year, and New Amerykah sounded like it. The buzz was that New Amerykah was her designated “political album,” to the point where one reviewer called it “her state-of-the-nation address.” That could really be applied to any of her albums, but a salute to Farrakhan leads critics a certain way.
The album is political, but not in the colloquial sense that involves hitting talking points about the capital-I Issues. It’s about power and who has it. The subtitle, 4th World War, references a documentary about “people’s resistance to occupation all over the world.” “The Cell” is a fractured drug story delivered like a snare solo. Its sadly inevitable end feels like a parable. “Rich man got the double barrel,” Badu raps in three layers of harmony, “poor man got his back to the door.” She sings to “to [her] boys in Iraqi fields, this ain’t no time to kill” on “Soldier.” It’s disheartening to realize that line is one of her most timeless.
The press around New Amerykah will remind you that 2008 was an entirely different technological age. When was the last time you heard an artist talk about their new CD? The New York Times noted that she wanted to release it on a USB drive, and then the paper of record had to explain to its readers that such a device was for plugging into computers.
The album began when Badu’s son Seven showed her how to tinker with Garageband. Soon, she started sending drafts to colleagues in emails, a novelty to her at the time. She was thrilled to multitrack herself at home, leading to songs like the layered “My People.” Over a shaky drum loop, Badu repeats “hold on, my people” like a mantra in ascending harmonies. She solos on top of that, reminding the listener that “love is on the way,” even as the desperation creeps into her voice, even as it sounds like she’s singing to herself. It’s a heartbreaking and empowering track, both of its time and stranded outside it.
New Amerykah’s influence continues to reverberate into the future but its most enduring addition to the culture is not musical or lyrical, but lingual. On “Master Teacher,” Badu offers the defiant refrain “I stay woke.” The phrase took time to spread. Earl Sweatshirt remembers being scolded by his mom for singing along to it as a mindless teenager: “She turned it down. She was like ‘No, you’re not.’” But years later, when he called her in the midst of his own maturation, understanding that chorus was how he realized “Yo, I’m grown.”
In the decade since, the word “woke” has been everything from a progressive badge of honor to a parody of those wearing said badge. It’s integral to the chorus of Childish Gambino’s “Redbone,” which was then given a prime placement in the opening credits of Get Out. Like “Seven Nation Army” being chanted at football matches by people who have never heard of Meg White, “woke” is so well-known that its origins have been obscured.
Of course, New Amerykah made quite an impact on the music of the future as well. The secret weapon in the low end of “Master Teacher” is bassist Stephen Bruner. He flows alongside the off-kilter beat, sometimes bubbling up to the surface, before switching to a driving Latin rhythm in the song’s second movement. Bruner is all over the album, reinforcing the lurching grooves of “Me” and “That Hump.” It was early enough in his career that they only called him Thundercat in quotes sandwiched between his government name. It must have seemed more like a nickname than a professional title. It’s hard to imagine him writing tunes with Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and Kendrick Lamar, to say nothing of his solo work, without these powerful performances on his resume.
The most exciting pop artists of recent years have emerged from Erykah Badu’s work on this album like the dense mass of symbols bursting from her fro on the record cover. Frank Ocean’s acid-tinged sonic palette; SZA’s contradictory confessions; Earl Sweatshirt’s dark day of the soul; NxWorries’ pimp caricature R&B; Janelle Monae’s revolution of dance; Chance The Rapper’s street-level fables. As Badu said, “it’s all me.” Like her coined slang, Badu may not always get the credit she deserves, but her effect on the future is undeniable. Any artist trying to keep their head on straight while they sing their lungs clean of weed smoke is fulfilling that Amerykahn promise.
Mz. Badu harnessed the past, reflected on the present, and infiltrated the future to create her finest work yet. What other artist could be compared to both Kate Bush and Lil Wayne in the same album cycle? She has released two projects since, Part Two and a “Hotline Bling”-inspired mixtape. Neither reaches the same heights as Part One, but they’re still fascinating listens, like early Prince or late Michael.
Badu’s position among the greats means that any time she puts out new music, it’s news. It’s the same position that allows you to say irredeemably dumb shit about Hitler in an interview then brush it off without an apology, but our collective outrage has far better targets these days anyhow. We have managed to avoid WWIII thus far, but the 4th has been with us all along. So please join me in pledging allegiance to New Amerykah.