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ALBUM REVIEWS

'Amerykah' the beautiful

February 29, 2008|Ernest Hardy, Richard Cromelin

Erykah Badu

"New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)" (Motown/Universal)

***1/2

Erykah Badu continues to make the case that she's one of hip-hop's few genuine, and certainly most important, artists. She does it, paradoxically, by transcending genre to make that point, and on her new CD, she rifles with an alchemist's agenda through jazz, electronica, '70s soul and hip-hop.

But it's her underrated role as wordsmith that most dazzles. New songs "Soldier," "The Healer" and "Master Teacher" are political tracts whose layered poetic lyrics address topics including Hurricane Katrina and the power and scope of hip-hop, the possibility of reclaiming rap's forward-motion social and political consciousness. "Me" is a lovely, midtempo jazz groove in which she tenderly dismantles her public persona and the rumors around it to reveal the working single mom at her core.

Where so many contemporary rap and R&B artists rotate through a short, trend-dictated list of producers du jour, Badu has tapped the hip-hop underground elite (producers Madlib and 9th Wonder; musician Georgia Anne Muldrow), the envelope-pushing Sa Ra collective and her steady troupe of collaborators (Roy Hargrove and the Roots' resident genius, ?uestlove). And the spirit of the late hip-hop producer J Dilla hovers over the entire project, in vibe and explicit tribute ("Telephone").

The result is a collection of demanding, disquieting and beautiful urban hymns that reveal their rewards on repeated listenings. And Badu pulls off an impressive feat: This artistic daughter of Alice Coltrane and Betty Davis pushes the envelope from a strobe-lit platform of pop visibility that her musical mothers were never able to achieve.

-- Ernest Hardy

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A backwoods metaphysician

Jim White

"Transnormal Skiperoo"

(Luaka Bop)

***

This Florida-born, Georgia-based singer-songwriter has always seemed a little too calculated to convincingly inhabit his chosen role of Southern gothic maverick, but the crew he's gathered for his fourth album (due Tuesday) bonds with his sensibility in a way that brings out his best.

Forged by members of the New York Americana band Olabelle and assorted collaborators, the music elaborates on a folk and country base with loose-limbed rock-soul grooves and touches of cowboy psychedelia. "Crash Into the Sun" shambles like a Beck demo, while pieces such as "Fruit of the Vine" and "Take Me Away" take on a collaged, cinematic quality, as voices speak and choirs sing in the distance.

White intersects literary city-dwellers such as Joe Henry and the Eels' E, but with a backwoods flavor and a homespun spin. He's on a metaphysical quest for transcendence here, but much of "Transnormal Skiperoo" unfolds in a down-to-earth landscape of junkyards and railroad crossings, a place where a truck-stop cashier dreams of a rich man who will take her away, and the town loony faces down an oncoming train.

That world also holds the solace of home, and though White's thin, flexible voice is sometimes too wispy to hold the center, his directness keeps you with him as he makes his way toward something safe and solid.

-- Richard Cromelin

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Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor). Albums reviewed have been released except as indicated.

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