Growing Pains

Erykah Badu's new Worldwide Underground

In the liner notes to Erykah Badu’s ambitious if perplexing EP Underground Worldwide, she writes that several tunes were inspired by her “Frustrated Artist Tour of 2003. ” Seems as though the neo-soul high priestess has had enough of the blinged-out, “make it hot ” nonsense of much of mainstream R&B and hip-hop. But as sonically riveting as Underground Worldwide is, she really doesn’t offer a completely compelling antidote.

From the first cursory listening it appears as though Badu took cues from her bohemian hip-hop paramour, Common, who last year concocted the equally elaborate and eyebrow-raising Electric Circus. Both CDs come out of the eminent Soulaquarian vibe with Underground Worldwide introducing Badu’s production team, Freakquency, which consists of Badu, James Poyser, Rashad “Ringo ” Smith, and RC Williams. Together, they’ve constructed bewitching soundscapes filled with warm keyboard and ARP-strings riffs and chords, thick hip-hop beats, and Black Power-inspired congas — all sprinkled with evocative electronica stardust. Indeed, their futuristic look at ’70s R&B seduces remarkably, transforming Underground Worldwide into one of the most ingeniously produced R&B CDs of the year.



Badu

Problem is that Badu and company take such a cavalier approach to studio experimentation that it seems as if they’re willfully trying the patience of their fans. Such is the case with “Bump, ” which clocks over eight minutes — five of which are damn near disposable with Badu, Zap Mama, and Caron Wheeler self-indulging in aimless caterwauls that go nowhere. During the transition between “Back in the Day ” and “I Want You, ” she takes nearly four minutes for the latter song to actually kick in as she tweaks the syllable of the last word from the former cut and transforms it into a descending onomatopoetic halt, which mutates into a cardiac backbeat, only to crest, slowly, into a mid-tempo song that hardly makes the litmus test worthwhile.

The studio razzle-dazzle is so formidable that oftentimes Badu has to compete with her own sonic environments. She’s never had a particular strong voice, but rather one that entices with its purring timbre and flexibility. In the past, she had mostly compensated for her voice deficiencies with quirky, thought-provoking lyrics. Here, her idiosyncratic lines often get buried in the mix. “Push up the fader/Bust the meter/Shake the tweeter, ” from “Bump ” comes out sounding like “Who shot the fabler?/Bus a meter/something another. ” Then, there are the just plain sophomoric lyrics like the ones that mar the otherwise marvelous, “Back in the Day, ” her ode to the ’70s, when urban radio was more far-reaching. Instead of waxing an insightful critique, she sings “Back in the day when things were cool/All we needed was bap ba ba ba ba da… ” It’s a good hook, but that’s about it.


Erykah Badu
Worldwide Underground
Motown


Worldwide Underground

Worldwide Underground is not a complete disaster. When Badu writes verses to match the sonic innovations, the results are brilliant. On the blazing lead single, “Danger, ” she picks up the emotionally complex theme from “The Other Side of the Game ” where she sang of the heartaches of loving of crime-proned hustler. In fact, she’s upped the ante with this harrowing tale of bleak urban reality — this time, with her man incarcerated, leaving the femme fatale and child with a box full of money underneath the bed to await, frantically, for his return. Ready to run at a moments notice, she sings “Gotta keep the clip in mama’s gun or runÂ…we like to keep the car runnin’/We try to keep the bitch hummin’ in case the ‘sweeper boyz’ comin’ runnin’ ” passionately, without any of the cartoonist attitude that Macy Gray infused her similar Bonnie & Clyde ballad, “I’ve Committed Murder. ” Hip-hop duo the Dead Prez gives Badu’s “The Grind ” its “by any means necessary ” survival angst with verses such as “‘nother day, ‘nother day/’nother dollar is spent/Gotta make a revolution out of fifteen cent ” while simultaneously reducing Badu’s role to background singer.

The best moments of Worldwide Underground don’t all come from the socially-conscious material. On the tour de force “Love of My Life Worldwide, ” Badu pulls Queen Latifah out of MC retirement and enlists ace rapper Bahamadia and Angie Stone on a rousing makeover of Sequence’s early’80s hip-hop classic, “We’re Gonna Funk You Right Up ” that’s destined to become a “bluelights in the basement ” anthem. And although, lyrically underdone, Badu’s sensuous take on Donald Byrd’s jazz-funk classic “Think Twice ” titillates with her billowy voice and Roy Hargrove’s too-brief trumpet solo.

Had Badu channeled her artistic frustrations into her songwriting as much as she did her studio ingenuity, Worldwide Underground would have made an admirable follow-up to the superior, Mama’s Gun. Instead, it shows less signs of artistic growth than growing pains.


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