Interestingly, JFK and B.I.G. — two American icons who died too young — both find places on Erykah Badu's latest album, a sequel-of-sorts to her 2008 release, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). In the music video for "Window Seat," the album's smooth jazzed-out lead single, Badu is inspired by indie rockers (and notorious frequent streakers) Matt & Kim to shed her clothes in public at Dallas' Dealey Plaza, the site of Kennedy's assassination. The video ends with a gun blast. Badu then collapses to the sidewalk, blue blood spilling from her skull to spell out the word "groupthink" on the concrete, as Badu shifts into a monologue: "They play it safe, are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. ..." "Groupthink" conspiracy theories aside, many folks might've written Badu off years ago as yet another neo-soul weirdo (I mean, take a gander at those album titles!), especially after every rapper she dated at that time (Common, Andre 3000) turned hippie themselves. There was also her infamous "Time is for white people" quote that she gave to Blender magazine back when her New Amerykah Part One was released. And she recently received more weirdo ink when, all in the name of art, Badu was charged with disorderly conduct following her nude turn for that "Window Seat" video shoot.
One imagines that, based on her past dating history, Badu and Biggie Smalls — who was as big of a playboy as JFK — could've eventually been an item had the rapper lived longer. And with "Take Me Away," Badu boldly flips the same Sylvia Striplin sample that was used on the B.I.G.-Junior Mafia classic, "Get Money." Badu then quotes the slain rapper on "Fall in Love," a thumper that's soaked in the signature Soulquarians sound of such classic albums as Common's Like Water for Chocolate and the Roots' Things Fall Apart. But while Part One was a darker Orwellian funk bomb, this sequel floods the ears with beautiful brushes of the likes of Thelonious Monk bebop and Dilla boom bap.
In today's dark climate, Badu's social messages shine through. But she has always been more intoxicating when she's simply introspective and personal — and on the album closer, "Out My Mind, Just in Time," Badu hypnotically laments an ex-lover, sounding like she's just as strong of a sidekick as Lil' Kim or Marilyn Monroe were to the assassinated initials that play into themes on this stunning new release. It's a stirring final act to what might be termed her best ghetto-opera to date.
Friday, June 4, at Chene Park, 2600 Atwater, Detroit; 313-393-0292; with N.E.R.D. and Janelle Monae.
Thomas Matich is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.