"Neo-Soul is dead" reads the cover of Erykah Badu's new CD, which features Lenny Kravitz who once made the same declaration about rock 'n' roll. Should that be a good sign or an omen? Kravitz' Circus, containing his rock 'n' roll eulogy, was arguably his best work. But right after declaring it dead, Kravitz dove into a string of blatantly rock 'n' roll songs. These contradictions abound on Worldwide Underground where, in the liner notes, Badu tells her peers to stay unmovable in their music-ing while asking on her CD cover: "Are you afraid of change?" Only to answer herself: "Well, change makes dollars."
Such money-motivation in a musical genre that once prided itself on focusing on black music's rich tradition before Motown's image-packaging is evidence enough that neo-soul is dead. At the end of her song "I Want You" -- a tedious listen that doesn't get interesting until seven minutes in -- she chimes, "Just because I say I love you / doesn't mean I do." Hopefully, she's not talking to her fans. She could be talking to her hip-hop-half, Common, whom she's rumored to have dumped. Even if that rumor is unfounded, it's a fact that Common remains absent here - he's not even on this version of the Grammy-winning song she recently recorded with him, "Love of My Life."
Also MIA is Badu's percussionist Ahmir "?uestlove." Thankfully, longtime collaborator James Poyser is still present, for any soul CD without him falls into the R&B wastebasket. The result: a new style Badu calls "freakquency," which for its contradictions and missing ingredients, is a tight medley of funk concoctions, not so much post-neo-soul as it is just good neo-soul. Perhaps in an attempt to separate herself from that neo-soul poser India Arie, with whom she shares labels, Badu eschews the "righteous spiritworld" talk for more militant "down-with-the-block-niggas" talk. It's done in the vein of the dead prez's revolutionary but gangsta wave aggressively winning over hip hop now; dead prez's M-1 (Badu's reported new beau) even appears on a song Badu herself isn't on. In "Woo" she's barely there again, allowing her band and back-up singers to do the damn thing. And though they do it beautifully, we want Badu; the Badu who harmonizes so tenderly in "Back in the Day" but kills it in "Danger."
Badu bills this EP of hers as a mixtape. If by that she means mixed messages, then she's nailed it. She recently said on BET's 106th and Park show that she's still trying to find herself. When she does maybe we'll get an actual Badu CD and not some jam-session mixtape made on the back of a tour bus.