New Amerykah

Erykah Badu has embarked on one of the more ambitious projects in recent R&B history: This year, she'll release New AmErykah, a series of at least two, possibly three, albums tackling sociopolitical issues like poverty and 9/11, drawing on musical styles from the Forties through the Sixties, and promising, she says, to "talk for my race and my planet." Badu kicks off the first disc by indulging her arty side: 4th World War is mostly dark, minor-key melodies, eerie chants and atmospheric electro beats courtesy of underground producers like Madlib and Shafeeq Husain. Some of the music is gripping — the modal-sounding chorus and blippy groove of "My People" suggests an R&B version of Radiohead — but other tunes feel like absent-minded doodles, and Badu's social consciousness nets middling returns. There are passing references to falling buildings and young men ending up in prison, plus praise for Louis Farrakhan, but there's nothing specific enough to qualify as actual commentary. Still, it's good to have Badu back trying new things. She'll have another shot this year to get back to greatness.