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The Real Black Realness

After firing off Mama’s Gun, what could Erykah Badu possibly do for an encore? That 2000 album has quietly gone from being a misunderstood, largely slept-on cult item to an unconditional classic. Simply put: It’s one of the best albums of the last decade, regardless of genre. Using a failed love affair as both source material and inspiration, Badu untied her trademark head wrap, slipped off the fake dreads (shaved her head altogether), and wrote and sang her skinny ass off. How can you follow up an album that was scribed in blood and forged through tears, yet was also bitterly funny, smart and cathartic — an album that cemented your status as one who cannot be fucked with in terms of vision and artistry? You don’t go deeper; you go lighter, shrugging off both newly minted expectations and ever-constricting fan projections. You make a pop album. But pop for Badu is not the stuff of Beyoncé, Christina, Pharrell or Justin.

Pop is, among other things, the unapologetic embrace of formula; it’s the language of mass appeal and accessibility. That’s not intrinsically a bad thing.

The smartest and most resonant pop stars subvert and rewrite the terms, though, using that language to project their own essence/personality/worldview; weaker entities are subservient to the blueprint. On Worldwide Underground, Badu simultaneously dismantles and refines her (chilly/earthy) persona and her patented (’70s R&B/hip-hop/funk/jazz synthesis) music. Familiar themes, sounds and subject matter are canvassed; old shit is cleva’ly interpolated as subtle experimentation is pushed forward. It’s the cool pop artifact you’d get if Maze, Shuggie Otis, Betty Davis, Mother’s Finest, Sequence, Grand Master Flash, Chaka Khan and Rufus all kicked back at a barbecue or basement jam session, freestyling and improvising. This is a vibe record that all but demands wine, weed and incense as accompaniment. (W.U. is the year’s best summer album that, oops, happened to drop in fall.)

But just as you’re ready to categorize Worldwide as merely the dopest toke of mood music, a couplet will floor you with the gentle bite of its poetry: On the seductively propulsive 11-minute “I Want You,” where the ache of unrequited love is boiled down to its essence, Badu pulls a wry smile from her efforts at self-exorcism (“You can pray till early May/Fast for 30 days, still it won’t let go/Got a good book and got all in it, tried a little yoga for a minute, but it won’t let go”). Her voice strains and crackles with frustration in the foreground while layered backing vocals plaintively, sexily croon, “What we gon’ do?”

The sequencing of two songs underscores their political content without hammering the point. “The Grind,” a collaboration with Dead Prez about inner-city struggle, leads right into the new single, “Danger,” which is subtitled “Other Side of the Game, Part 2” and opens by referencing its classic predecessor. Where the original “Other Side” took a compassionate, nuanced look at a drug dealer, his woman and the lifestyle to which they’ve become accustomed, “Danger” goes even deeper in telling the female side of this hood Bonnie & Clyde saga, detailing the thoughts that nag her: “Me and this baby gon’ be up all night long/Walkin’ this wood flo’ till my man gets home/I’m at the front do’/I’m listening by the phone . . ./Well, there ain’t no mistakin’ that that money you makin’/Leaves you nervous and shakin’/’Cause at night you’re awake and thinkin’ ’bout lives that you’ve taken.”

The most radio-friendly moment on the album is “Love of My Life Worldwide,” a remix of the Grammy-winning hit “Love of My Life” that doubles as a cover of the old-school Sequence hit “Funk You Up.” Featuring guest raps by Queen Latifah, Bahamadia and Angie Stone (an original member of Sequence), it’s also the disc’s slyest moment. With its heavy-hitter lineup, the five-and-a-half-minute track is a purposeful nod to Latifah’s all-star-femme hit “Ladies First,” but it goes beyond mere homage by having reps from the underground (Bahamadia), old school (Stone) and Hollywood crossover dreams (Latifah) check in. It’s a love song to hip-hop that covers the spectrum and possibilities of the culture with a multidimensional female face at the mike; the joyous interplay between the artists — Bahamadia melts the mike with her velvety turn, and Latifah hasn’t been this good in years — turns it into a womanist anthem. It also makes you wish that Erykah would rap more often; she has the skills.

Worldwide is an EP stopgap between albums; it’s intended to be light and fun, a party record. It’s all of that, but because Erykah at her most whimsical is deeper than most of her contemporaries at their most intense, it’s far from disposable. Grooves stretch and mutate, going from heady, hypnotic funk to airy atmospherics to hip-hop-driven beats to white flashes of guitar. (Lenny Kravitz is one of the many guest stars, who also include Roy Hargrove, Marie Daulne of Zap Mama, and Caron Wheeler.) Moods and tempos might change course within the space of a single song, and there are moments when self-indulgence narrowly misses toppling some gorgeous work. Lyrics are, for the most part, sparse; they rely on the power of repetition to reveal their strength. What the new album has in common with Mama’s Gun is that both depend on repeated listenings to be fully appreciated — Mama for its depth, Worldwide for its levity.

Erykah Badu is a race woman. She revels in and presents blackness that is complex, layered. Humor is abundant in her work, but often gets flattened or missed by mainstream critics who see anything but refurbished cooning as a threat. While dropping knowledge, Badu represents blackness that is playful and knowingly performative. First and foremost, however, it’s affirmative. But mainstream American pop culture is crippled — infantilized — by the viruses of irony, sarcasm and detachment. Black popular culture is retarded by the paradox of mandated “realness” and a reality of contrived thug/pimp/playa posturing. That’s a set of bookends that all but guarantees willful misunderstanding and misrepresentation of black folk working sincerely from the stance of self-love.

 

On his fantastic new Sonic Jihad, Bay Area rapper Paris ties together blasts at George Bush (II), the current and seemingly permanent war in Iraq, and U.S. imperialism with blistering commentary on the ongoing pimping/degradation of black folk and culture — as committed by Negroes and others. Like Badu, he blends humor into the mix, but it’s of the most arid variety. Blink and you miss it. You don’t laugh so much as nod and go, “Oh, shit.” (Actually, there’s a chuckle in the artwork of the CD’s inner sleeve, in which Shrub is cast as Damien from The Omen.) Paris’ career was momentarily derailed more than 10 years ago when “Bush Killa,” his verbal slaying of the elder Bush on 1992’s Sleeping With the Enemy CD, drew controversy. Now that history’s repeating itself, so is Paris.

This time, he’s couched Jihad in the vintage West Coast, G-funk grooves he first employed with 1994’s Guerrilla Funk. Cameos by Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Capelton and Kam flesh out the rapper’s call-to-arms thesis. So do snippets from newscasts and man-on-the-street interviews. On “Sheep to the Slaughter,” an unidentified male voice asks, “Are we setting up a situation where young people who are just starting to come of age are gonna have no choice but to join the military, where there seems to be a lot of money, or go to prison, where there seems to be a lot of money?” Paris takes up the baton and rips a new asshole for celebrity warmongers. “Who do the fighting for these rich white folks and their wars? No, it ain’t Dennis Miller, Fox News, Mike Savage or Rush . . . It ain’t Ted Nugent, ’cause in war, targets got weapons, too.”

Paris states the obvious that still needs to be stated — the interconnectedness of oppressions, the link between war in foreign lands and war on domestic minds and spirits. And he shoots some of his most poisonous darts at the true modern-day house nigger, the jigaboo on MTV and in Hollywood who, in mindless pursuit of paper, plays the role of collaborator. Sonic Jihad is a retro hip-hop item: consciousness, beats and grooves. As Paris spits on “Tear Shit Up,” Muthafuck the bling!

ERYKAH BADU | Worldwide Underground | (Motown)

PARIS | Sonic Jihad | (Guerrilla Funk)

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