Erykah Badu
Worldwide Underground
Universal
2003
C+



although it clocks in at just under sixty minutes long, Worldwide Underground is being marketed as an EP. While everyone involved is stubborn that this is simply not Erykah Badu’s third full-length (not including her live set) but merely a stop-gap EP; with a running time that could almost house two Room on Fires and necessitate a double set in the pre-CD age, make no mistake, this is what anyone with a decent sense of time still calls an album.

So why the meek ‘oh but its just an EP!’ insistence? Presumably, it’s because all parties involved know this is as tossed off as R.Kelly between jail-stints. EP or LP, the sad fact is that this rarely makes good on the promise of 2000’s masterful Mama’s Gun. There are grooves galore but for the most part, they fail to morph into anything full-bodied. Instead, they tend to either drift into interesting if directionless suites of ambience or improvised meandering that don’t really develop. Or if it’s “I Want You”, they evaporate with a plastic mess of wretched rock toy-guitar.

Even on the strongest song, brilliant lead single “Danger”, the temptation to dawdle off into nearly Kathleen Battle-like vocal histrionics is clearly too hard to resist and by the last chorus, the track has already lost all interest in focus and decides it can’t be bothered anymore. The type of disc for which the word ‘edit’ cannot be used enough, Worldwide Underground seems fixed on padding out the space afforded by CDs with more atmosphere or half-finished ideas than anything resembling coherent and concise songs. It’s a typical dilemma for most neo-soul artists, the elitist club of which has seen its resident ‘don’t call us neo!’ members drowning in a song-less sea of virtual-mood-music and little else for a while now.

Perhaps aware that there’s only so many places a Fender Rhodes and rimshot can take you, Badu has scrawled that ‘neo-soul is dead’ on the front sleeve. That’s funny, because on the surface, this sounds just like any other neo-soul album out there – mid-tempo, mellow (but mercifully not ethereal) electric piano chords and light-in-the-ass hand claps and rim shots are absolutely everywhere. A note to all budding neo-soulites – go and listen to some soul from the sixties. If only for a change of scenery, please, do it for me.

While you’re at it, go haul out all those hallowed seventies albums every self-respecting neo-soulist simply has to have, and when you’re marvelling at how great everything used to be before you were even a wank in your father’s eye, listen to the quintessential Innervisions. Then take note that not only is the production robust, but there really are other instruments on each song. And don’t forget that last word, song. Not a vibe, not a cool feel or something to get smoked out to, no, a song. Then go and write one. Not a random set of musings cribbed from that smug kid who got a decent amount of whooping at last week’s open-mic poetry jam stuck on top of some ready-proven loop, I mean something that sounds like it couldn’t fit with any other piece of music in the world. What that means is, gasp, no samples allowed. Call me insane, call me a relic, but my optimism believes it can still be done.

Now before the soapbox made from incense sticks beneath my platforms starts to give way, let it be said that even when in water-treading stasis, Badu is still several hundred steps ahead of her competition. I’m not going to get caught up in that classic rock-crit puddle of comparing every new soul singer to the next as if there can be only one of worth at the same time because if you can’t tell the vocal difference between Jill Scott and Alicia Keys, vital components of your ears have clearly been excavated in your sleep. But Badu is more striking, more varied, more melodic, has a firmer sense of phrasing and as the first four minutes of “Bump It” and “I Want You” just about prove, a sharper song-writer than her many worthier-than-thou Starbucks poetry-princess peers.

Worldwide Underground, however, is not the album to drive that point home. If this is neo-soul being buried and given a eulogy by one of its best, it doesn’t bury its carcass deep enough to have anyone sprinting to attend the funeral. For a scene so obsessed with restoring some tradition to contemporary black music, it’s irritating that this is so crammed with such R&B-clean sonics and synthetic, sometimes light, programming. Admittedly, the latter isn’t as ill-placed as it might have been but who the fuck said live drums couldn’t smack as hard as a drum machine?

You could ask me to be sympathetic and say that Badu needs to make something that slides in better with all the other factory-line creations cluttering the airwaves to retain some currency, but I would have to tell you to go and get some imagination and shut the apologetic fuck up. Besides, even if this is meant to make Joe Stupid feel more at home, he’s not going to be very happy when he has to keep stabbing fast forward through half the ten-minute trials on offer. He might enjoy “The Grind” with Dead Prez where Erykah invites her latest alleged love interests into the studio to do some of that semi-sing-song thing that only Nate Dogg seems to do well.

Joe might also be pleased to hear that even though she’s hardly been languishing desperately in the wilderness of flops and failures for ten years, Erykah is already referencing the songs that made her famous. On “Danger”, she adds some excellent, hooky narrative footnotes to Baduizm’s “Otherside of the Game” but just in case we’re too stupid to make that connection, a portion of it plays at the start and she even sings a line or two to hammer it into our heads. Strangest of all, “Sometimes” the interlude, of all things, crops up on “Woo”. Now we were all just clamouring to hear that again, weren’t we?

To borrow the press release’s blurb that as a ‘mixtape’ this shouldn’t have to comply with long playing notions of track-to-track unity, this does live up to its trendy, if unambitious outline. I love mixtapes as much as the next cheapskate, but I like to get them for a fiver from my local market bootlegger, not full whack at HMV. Secretly, I hope that under Ms. Badu’s bed, stuck in between the yoga mats and Rufus and Chaka Khan CDs, there’s a reel of material that doesn’t sound like it was made over a few lazy afternoons. Free flowing it might be, but Worldwide Underground is less multifarious than it is an intriguing mish-mash.
Reviewed by: Sunil Chauhan
Reviewed on: 2003-11-19
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