Walls, Seth Colter, Newsweek
Byline: Seth Colter Walls
Erykah Badu's latest album is filled with plenty of gonzo touches, not least of which is its title--New Amerykah, Part II: Return of the Ankh. One of the best moments comes toward the end, when Badu's voice is manipulated for a few syllables. The recording-studio software drags her pitch down into the comically monstrous, basso profundo range, and then, with equal speed, slingshots it back up into the recognizable realm. It is--as the kids say--a "WTF?" moment nonpareil. It makes you laugh, too--since the head fake isn't repeated, you spend a lot more time thinking about the fleeting seconds of weirdness than the music actually spends being weird: a neat trick. On another track, Badu conjures an odd pairing of characters when she sings: "On this porch I'm rockin'/back and forth like Lightnin' Hopkins/If anybody speak to Scotty/tell him beam me up." Few singers would invoke the country-blues legend just before dropping a Star Trek reference, but then again, that's the line on Erykah: always boldly going where no one else in the R&B game bothers to bottle up and go.
If her label was hoping to underline that maverick reputation, it picked the right pair of competing R&B releases to put Badu up against. The new disc from chart favorite Usher is so suffused with familiar radio bait--right down to unimaginitive use of Auto-Tune--that it could make you long for a more soulful approach. Familiar in a better fashion is I Learned the Hard Way, the fourth expert volume of retro jamming from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, whose horn charts and gospel-influenced vocals are a call back to an "old school" Motown-style sound. Because she mines this history so well, Jones's new work is more satisfying than Usher's--though, unlike Badu, she isn't pushing the form forward much. …