This is part three of a four-part series on Erykah Badu’s massive role in communicating and normalizing Black feminism and Afro-futurism in contemporary discourses. Check out parts one, two, and four.
At this point in her career, Erykah Badu had cemented herself as one of the all-time greats in music. Not only had she released three timeless albums, her work collaborating with members of the Soulquarians (D’Angelo, Questlove, Q-Tip, J Dilla, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common, amongst others) made it clear she was respected by the best of the best in contemporary Black music.
New Amerykah, Pt. 1 (4th World War) begins with several smooth neo-soul tracks. “The Healer” and “Me” introduce the listener to the themes of the album. “The Healer” is an especially striking song. The song speaks about the hip-hop movement as not dead yet because it’s been living through the internet. Using Africa as a destination to flee to in a similar way that “On & On” does, “The Healer” begs people to wake up and return to Africa and “go get baptized in the ocean of the people.” On “Me,” the next track, she sings about her personal struggle living in America, about how there are “so many leaders to obey.” The song ends with an off-key outro about how Erykah came to be:
Kolleen Gibson Wright was a girl from South Dallas, Texas / Married William, gave birth to Erykah / Then Koryan under Erykah, and then she finally delivered Eevin Wright / Coolest friends called her twiggy / Cause she looked like a model with those eyes / She was witty and beautiful, people drawn to her smile / Lovely, long, and fresh / I could not think of another soul that I’d rather be like or admire / Kolleen is tighter, smarter, quicker than the average bear / Even though, even though, it was hard / You would never ever know it.”Erykab Badu, “Me”
The track centers herself in an admirable fashion, centering herself and her Black womanhood. Later on in the album, her message is diluted by the forces of white supremacist delusion. Interludes across the album speak about the government and media corrupting minds of the youth, particularly Black youth. Along with the nod to world war in the title, these interludes present America as a dystopian post-war future with little hope outside of a return to roots.
Released in 2010, Badu presents New Amerykah, Pt. 2, [Return of the Ankh] from a futuristic angle. The cover art features Badu as a machine-robot with a woman growing out of the top of her head. She’s surrounded by iridescent trees, giving the feeling that her status as a timeless being is nutritious to the soil and beings around her.
The album also sees her turn back the clock in terms of commercial viability with “Window Seat,” which has the feel of “On & On” or “Didn’t Cha Know,” each of which saw significant success on the radio and the billboard. “Window Seat” is the first full song on the project and sees her embrace the idea of escaping from America. The hook goes, “So can I get a window seat/ don’t want nobody next to me, I just want a ticket outta town, a look around, and a safe touch down.” She’s singing about being able to have a safe touch down in a new, identity-free life, playing directly into Marlo David’s discussion of afrofuturism. It’s a smooth transition from the violent and harsh landscapes of New Amerykah Pt. 1 (4th World War). And while she planned a third installment in the New Amerykah series, it has yet to be released.
Outside of the millions of listens racked up by “Window Seat,” these two albums didn’t grow Badu’s popularity in the same way her first three albums did. If anything, they proved that Badu’s creative vision and personal values won’t be compromised in the face of less mainstream appeal. These ideas continue and strengthen with her latest album, But You Caint Use My Phone, which is rife with creative risks and rewards. See our discussion on the 2015 album here.