For a long time—about three years—Erykah Badu figured maybe she was done making records. It started around the time she released Worldwide Underground in June 2003, which would have been one hell of a farewell: a gritty, fist-in-your-face EP populated by tracks that rambled on and on, some drenched in fuzz, others doused with fury. Nothing was coming; nothing was happening; nothing was everything when she sat down to write...just...something, damn it.
Maybe her muse had abandoned her. "I didn't think I had the creative ideas anymore," she says. Maybe her spark had died. "It wasn't coming." She was used to improvising, used to creating without even thinking—shit used to just pop into her head while listening to instrumental tracks awaiting her lyrical input. No more. "And when that doesn't happen, I felt like maybe that's the end of it for me. I reached my peak."
She figured maybe she'd just be a mother with two kids (10-year-old son Seven, 3-year-old daughter Puma) and enough sideline businesses (her Cleva Seven clothing line, a lifestyle and music magazine called Freaq set to bow in July, her Control Freaq record label, running the Black Forest Theatre in South Dallas) to occupy her time. "You can rest when you die," she says of her extracurricular activities.
As for making music, well, she'd get around to it sooner or later. Not like she's the world's most prolific artist anyway: four albums since her 1997 three-Grammy-winning, 2-million-copies-selling Baduizm—one of which was a live album released at the end of '97 and one of which was that EP that sold around half a million copies. Besides, she'd always regarded herself as a touring artist. So she'd tour to pay the bills. And she'd record when she wanted, even if no one would ever hear it.
"When you have writer's block, that's a process when you're supposed to be downloading information," she says from her apartment in Fort Green, Brooklyn, where Badu lives when she isn't holed up in her cozy-funky East Dallas digs. "There's not anything necessary for you to say or to contribute. That's the part where someone else is talking and you're listening. It's kinda like that. If you don't see it that way, you just feel like other things'll creep in, like, 'I've had three or four albums. Maybe they don't wanna hear nothing else I have to say. It's not exciting anymore.' So many kinda different things, so many desperately depressing things you begin to think. And as an artist, we have to go into these deep depressions. I'm finding that out, because if I'm tracing back to the first album, I remember having a depressing kind of feeling: 'I have to have something so I can make myself over.' It's a weird kind of feeling. I gotta make myself over.
"And there was a certain acceptance and a quiet transition that I was moving into. I started to accept that maybe it's OK for me to put out music, and it doesn't have to be something dynamic or world-changing. But just as I was accepting that, here comes this burst of light and energy and creativity. And that's the process, I guess, of life—the detachment and the release of something gives you even more room to grow or be creative. I guess that's the lesson I'm getting."
Which is why on Tuesday—the day Badu turns 37, matter of fact—Universal Motown will release Nu Amerykah Part 1: The Fourth World War, the first of four albums Badu plans on releasing in the next 12 months. The moment she thought it was over, it started over: Several producers, among them Madlib and 9th Wonder and The Roots' ?uestlove, started sending her tracks as inspiration, and somewhere between retirement and release, she found herself with some 72 tracks from which to choose. Which is why there will also be the Nu Amerykah follow-up in the summer, and another live-in-the-studio record titled Lowdown Loretta Brown to be released through Starbucks in the fall or winter, and then another disc from her part-time band Edith Funker (which includes, among others, Doyle Bramhall II and Wendy & Lisa) sometime in 2009—most likely on Control Freaq, through which she'd also like to release her original 1996 demos (recorded as Erica Wright, her birth name) next year.
So much for giving up.
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The most remarkable thing, though: Nu Amerykah, which Badu only finished mastering last week at Electric Lady Studios in New York after starting recording at Luminous Sound Studios here in Dallas, is a motherfunking masterpiece—P-Funk '77 by way of Stax-Volt '68 by way of Def Jam '86 by way of modern dance-pop's blips and bleeps and grunts and moans. It's pissed-off political and profoundly personal, a dance-floor jam and a headphone freak-out painted in widescreen Technicolor—M.I.A. without the exotica getting in the way. Nu Amerykah's groovy and grimy and soulful and spacey—in short, a history of Badu's small recorded output crammed into a dozen tracks that don't let up from the grindhouse-cinema sirens of opening track "American Promise" to the yipee-ai-yay climax of the single "Honey" to the ambient-airy funky stuff in between that touches on everything from the late J Dilla ("Telephone") to what it means to be the mother of a young son growing up in a violent world ("Soldier").
"I clearly have something to say at this point," says Badu, now long-distanced from the days when she was the high priestess of patchouli-scented soul. "With Worldwide Underground, I didn't. I felt the frequencies of music more than anything. I was downloading the whole time. 'The process' is what I call Worldwide Underground—the process of things being downloaded. And from that album to this one, you can see all that, plus what has happened on the planet and around the world and in our country and in my city and technically, vitally, physically, spiritually—all of that is now something that is a clear lesson. It's almost like with Worldwide Underground, I was still in school. As an artist, we use our music as therapy. I do, anyway... There's nothing else outside of me that can make me move fast. Growth is not a race to me. It's a definite process. I'm not interested in microwaving."
So how, then, did she know she was ready to make the new album?
"I don't know," she says. "It's like, how do the stars know when it's time to supernova?"