New Amerykah Part One (4thWorld)
Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time, for y'all have done knocked her up
I have eaten the maggots of the mind of the universe. I was not offended
For I knew I had to rise above it all or drown in my own shit
-Funkadelic "Maggot Brain," 1971
I've always wanted to witness a classroom of white third graders, twitchy and earnest, hand on heart before the flag in the morning reciting the opening oath from "Maggot Brain" instead of the Pledge of Allegiance. When I discovered funk's transformative power one day, when P-Funk Earth Tour entered my, up to that point, ironic hipster 8-track collection, I saw that the declarations, the thud, the silliness, the hyperkinetic everything-at-once collapse that makes up a great R&B record are the only way to really survive this world. Things seem stupid? Get stupider. Too much hassle? Get hustlin'. Too controlled? Pilot your own damn spaceship then.
Mother Earth is showing signs of a fourth pregnancy on Erykah Badu's soul-heavy new record new Amerykah Part One (4th World). "Amerykan Promise" opens with a blaxploitation trailer blurb ...more action, more excitement, more everything... which nails this record. The track is a sidewalk boogie shuffle densely packed with every single George Clinton cliché in the book: an announcer jive-talking throughout, that swing low chorus, the horns. It's on. At one point she deadpans, oh look, freedom's here, nailing the rage against disenfranchisement that funk can do better than anything, even hip-hop.
She gives hip-hop its due on the decidedly not hip-hop, moody chant "The Healer" offering hip-hop is bigger than religion, hip hop is bigger than my nigga, hip-hop is bigger than the government in her stoney baby-talk way. Maybe, but she makes a stronger case for the music that often forms the base of hip-hop as being the unifying force, the groove. Bass is the base. What gives hip-hop its power is the underlying celebration of the self funk provides, seeing oneself expanded out through the masses with messianic radiance, and that gets a fine showing in "Me." The track is all soul-clap, What's Going On smoothness with Ms. Badu walking on the waters singing like a bird. It is a magnificent piece of music.
In keeping with every funk album in existence, there are some sever editing problems that keep this album from ascending to the heavens. "The People" is a spooky subliminal chant that sounds unfinished, "Twinkle" sounds like there was some sort of transporter accident where two really good songs got their DNA tangled up and emerged grotesque and ill-equipped to flourish, "Master Teacher" is a little too lost in its own syrupy groove to really rise above it all. But the point of psychedelic funk, I think, is for the artist to go there: down every street, down every dark alley, like a flood seeping into everything and dragging it back with you as the waters recede.
"The Cell" is a dense, complex number that gets it right. The sound is like if Ulysses was penned by Curtis Mayfied, and was subsequently interpreted by rouge robots from Afrikka Bambata'ssecret laboratory deep inside the Watts Towers. Badu creates a dense tableau of street crime, drugs, and desperation with her cubist array of scatting, singing and narration. It is too much to hear almost, but life is too much to take in. Everything comes at once in a rush, and it all wants to get paid, and you are running out of money, if you had any at all. Funk, in all its illogical goofiness and anger, is the only possible reaction to all this. Badu might say hip-hop is bigger than religion, government, etc etc, but this album offers the possibility that funk is bigger than us all, and might be the one thing that saves us from drowning in our own shit.
Fly photo of Ms. Erykah Badass ganked from her myspace page.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com