Friday, December 26, 2008

Neo-Soul Gem

Sounds of 2008
15. Erykah Badu: Telephone

I've had a major bee in my bonnet for some time now about the bandying about of the term "r 'n' b."

Far divorced from traditional rhythm and blues music, r 'n' b has become a catch-all term for black - or black-influenced - music as a whole, anything from hip-hop to neo-gospel and 2-step.

Thus, anyone from Anthony Hamilton to Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey or ('scuse me while I barf) Craig David - are likely to be described as r'n'b, even where there's precious little rhythm or blues to be found in the grooves.

There's no doubt, though, that Erykah Badu's New Amerikah Part One LP deserves the moniker of r ' n ' b as it goes some way toward arresting the depressing decline of soul music over the last two decades.

Though it's defiantly hip-hop in tone, New Amerikah hearkens back to the heyday of avant-garde soul and invokes the spirits of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic.

At a time when hip-hop has lost its way, ricocheting between self-parody and implosion, that can only be a good thing, and Badu surrounds herself here with fearless hip-hop/neo-soul avatars like Madlib and 9th Wonder.

Whether this record heralds a resurgence of black power I don't know. With a black president about to take office, it's not unimaginable. If D'Angelo ever gets around to releasing a follow-up to his definitive neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo - and if the recent re-emergence of classic soul in hip-hop becomes something more substantial - we might see the emergence of a new power in black music.

At any rate, this is an awesomely expansive, ambitious, politically charged record. Songs range from oblique inner explorations to biting social commentary.

Though it's occasionally frustrating in its high-art indulgence it's always a challenging and thought-provoking listen. One of my favorite tracks of the year was Telephone - an elegiac neo-soul gem.

Erykah Badu MySpace

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