Lady Screams the Blues
A review of New Amerykah: Part One by Erykah Badu (2008)
Philosopher Cornel West has written and lectured extensively on the Blue Note. The Blue Note is that “note of dissonance and defiance that people of African descent interjected into American history,” he told an audience at the University of Virginia. The Blue Note is the note of "questioning but also connecting with others, trying to situate oneself in a story bigger than oneself. Trying to locate oneself in a narrative grander than oneself." West further asserts that the Blue Note "is deeply grounded in the best of a democratic tradition that says that everyday people’s lives have dignity, that lives are shot through with a sense of the problematic and majestic and the tragic, and that they ought to have a voice"
Erykah Badu gives form to that voice with songs that embody the Blue Note on her fourth album, New Amerykah. The album contains songs at once vulnerable and urgent accompanied by imagery that is arresting. The result is an album that is as uncompromising as Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On and as candid as Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly featuring songs that evoke the agitation of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” the audacity of Parliament’s “Chocolate City,” and the lucidity of Prince’s “Sign O’the Times.” Yet Badu is assuredly original. Although she channels the spirits of the aforementioned artists, the songs on New Amerykah stand solidly on their own.
Badu sets the tone for the album on “Amerykahn Promise,” a song that mocks America’s obsession with vengeance, materialism, and physical perfection. If “Amerykahn Promise” sounds like the opening of a 70s Blaxploitation film it may be because it was produced by jazz-funk legend Roy Ayers who also produced the soundtrack to Pam Grier’s Coffy. Then, on “The Healer," Badu declares that Hip Hop is an unstoppable, transcendental lifeforce that is bigger than religion and the government.
On the introspective “Me,” Badu pushes back against the same forces mentioned in “The Healer” that wish Black people would disappear and promises that “they may try to erase my face but millions will spring up in my place.” On the same track she forthrightly acknowledges the public’s fascination with her private life as she sings about her children’s fathers (Andre Benjamin of Outkast and rapper The D.O.C.) and affirms her right to live as she pleases. She later hails the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on the song, holding him up as an example of someone who like her is misunderstood.
On “My People” Badu uses former Temptation Eddie Kendricks’ 1972 desperate plea “My People Hold On” to encourage perseverance. This is followed by “Soldier,” a song both uplifting and despairing in its depiction of a young man striving to succeed even as he is surrounded by violence and criminality. Badu is relentless as she calls out warring people in Iraq, corrupt elected officials in Washington, DC, and corrupt cops everywhere. She boldly frames 9/11 as America’s wake up call and pledges kinship with the victims of America’s negligence who suffered during Hurricane Katrina. Once again, she protests against a power structure that is in denial “tryin’ to hide the history but they know who we are.”
Badu does not shy away from confronting those she is advocating for. “We’re not well," she sings on “The Cell” conveying both anguish and anger at the endless cycle of pain, addiction, violence, and exploitation that grips families. On “Twinkle” she rails against the subjugation inherent in ghetto life where the only choices for escape are prison or addiction. She lays the blame for this existence on those in power who keep families “uneducated, sick, and depressed.” At the same time, she calls for an end to the complacency that allows people to just “take what their given.” Instead, she calls on people to “struggle and strive” (‘Master Teacher”) and elevate themselves above despair and addiction (“That Hump”).
New Amerykah’s penultimate song is the despondent “Telephone,” a song for her friend and producer J. Dilla who died in 2006. On the song she asks Dilla to prepare a place for her - a plea that goes beyond a wish to be reunited in death with a loved one. Badu sees death as the ultimate escape from the world of pain and desolation she sees engulfing her community everyday. Yet she clearly does not feel death is the only way out. Badu is very fond of the Ankh which symbolizes water, air, the sun, and the power to give life. With New Amerykah she boldly asserts that the power to give life resides within each individual regardless of their circumstances and challenges listeners to recognize and use this power to speak truth to power. New Amerykah shows Badu at perhaps the height of her own power as both poet and prophet – something quite refreshing in an age of Idol worship.