Badu's "Baduizm" was one of the most dazzling debuts of the '90s, an album that put her in the forefront of a group of challenging artists--from Lauryn Hill and D'Angelo to Macy Gray and Jill Scott--who have re-energized R&B music with their character and ambition.
Influenced by such models as Billie Holiday and Stevie Wonder, Badu demonstrated in that 1997 album that she was a compelling stylist and commentator who wrote with equal passion and craft about racism in America and the tensions of relationships.
Returning to the studio after a live album and a high-profile acting turn in "The Cider House Rules," Badu aims for the individuality and punch of "Baduizm," but only reaches it in key moments. The arrangements seem icy and impersonal at times, and traces of excessive mannerisms surface elsewhere.
At her best, Badu continues to look beyond the normal boundaries of pop. Her "Bag Lady," already a hit single, is storytelling with a heart, while "Time's a Wastin' " a song about the need for young men to take responsibility in their lives, is observation with a point. She doesn't only offer advice. Badu can also look inward (the questioning "My Life") and she can be surprising (a brief nod to her earlier hit "On & On.").
Whatever the role, Badu remains a valuable artist. By cutting 10 to 15 minutes out of this 72-minute package, Badu could have come closer to the cohesion and compactness that made "Baduizm" such a defining work.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are due in stores Tuesday unless otherwise noted.