Erykah Badu's latest, Worldwide Underground, is like a novella from a great writer--you're reminded of the earlier stuff, you hear the continuation of old story lines and themes, but then you notice that it floats above a new tone; the voice rattles with a different urgency. The new record transcends everything else tossed off as "urban" music because it is held together across its songs by actual musical ideas and actual musicians rather than a tried and tired collection of sample-based, hook-driven singles; Badu's songs are made to be anti-pop and pro-funk. She scraps verse-chorus-verse structures for more spacious forms that can house fragmented lyrical ideas while leaving plenty of room for bounce from her tight band, Frequency. The group is greasy, fattening and finger-licking good, since James Poyser, the monster producer and keyboard player, extends the influence of the Soulquarians into Frequency. That musical collective has worked to create recent boundary-blasting stuff like D'Angelo's Voodoo, the Roots' Things Fall Apart, Common's Like Water for Chocolate, Mama's Gun and Roy Hargrove's The RH Factor. Worldwide is definitely a branch on that family tree. But there's more: At least one of Worldwide's grandparents is Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, and when you hear the track "Back in the Day" you can catch a little bit of Me'Shell Ndegeocello's quiet but important influence on American soul music. Worldwide, on its own, is 21st-century loose-booty funk--the kind of record you put on at a party, let flow beginning to end and then run again because you can drink, dance, groove and mack to it.
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