In the nearly four years between albums, Erykah Badu, the self-proclaimed "analog girl in a digital world," had a lot going on.
Besides raising her two children - Seven, age 10, and Puma, age 3 - she invested in the arts community of her native South Dallas, renovating the Black Forest Theater there, where she performed as a child. She founded B.L.I.N.D. (Beautiful Love Incorporated Nonprofit Development), which focuses on social programs, and Control FreaQ, her own label and production house. She also became a licensed holistic health practitioner.
Of course, in the midst of all this activity, Badu, 37, still had music to make. Her label, Universal Motown, wanted a follow-up to Worldwide Underground, her 2003 gold seller, ASAP. Her fans wanted new music, too.
In February, Badu finally released New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War, an often-unsettling album bristling with elliptical, politically charged lyrics. "I wanted to have a responsible, conscious message, something exact and direct," says Badu, who plays Pier Six Concert Pavilion on Saturday night. "This is my perspective of what's happening to the underdog in America. It's just a testimony to what I've seen. This is a very winter kind of record. It's very mental."
The "mental" part can be applied to all of Badu's music. Even at her wittiest (remember "Booty" from 2000's Mama's Gun?), the artist is still profound. She has challenged fans and critics with multi-hued, esoteric lyrics and genre-blurring music since her 1997 debut, the Grammy-winning Baduizm. Her lyrics sometimes glimmer with gems: "If you want to feel me/better be divine/bring me water/for these flowers growing out my mind."
But for New Amerykah (its sequel, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, is due out in July), Badu slightly changed her approach. In lieu of gathering musicians in a studio and jamming, she crafted much of the album on a laptop she received as a gift. Underground hip-hop producers - Sa-Ra, Madlib and 9th Wonder - e-mailed Badu tracks, which she tweaked on the computer.
"Being a full-time mom and teacher, it's a struggle to squeeze some creativity in," says Badu, who was in Detroit last week. "I found the freedom using Garage Band on my laptop. It gave me the ability to write the verses and record the vocals and background vocals. I was my own engineer. All it took was the headphones, and I recorded in the computer's mike."
Musically, New Amerykah is Badu's most hip-hop-influenced album. The tracks - sometimes turgid, sometime spare - bump, knock and boom as obscure noise bites and various voice snippets peek in and out of the mixes. Lyrically, there's so much to digest that it's a bit overwhelming for the uninitiated.
Deep references to Nation of Islam philosophies (Badu gives Louis Farrakhan a direct shout-out in the jazzy "Me") and allusions to the negative cyclical effects of drug abuse and the failures of the American health care and education systems abound. Paranoia haunts the record and finally lets up on the hidden bonus track, the feel-good jam "Honey," the album's first single.
"`Honey' is kind of a preview to Return of the Ankh," Badu says. "It's very summery. It's like how I was when I first came out. I wanted to bring that frequency back to a more conscious place."
Badu has always been an uncompromising artist - but not so much in a diva way. She's not afraid to flip her style or turn it inside out. In interviews, she comes across as sincere and sharply focused. She's also sassy and hilariously profane, all of which she reveals onstage. Although her latest album may be a tough pill to swallow, it's still a necessary dose of unfettered creativity long absent in modern black pop.
"It's the gift of being able to influence. When you're influential, that art or talent shines," Badu says. "I have to be careful not to be thoughtless in this whole thing. But at the same time, I got to be me. It's a constant struggle between me and the artist. But I feel fulfilled. The music makes me feel really good, and it's an honor to share what fulfills me."
See Erykah Badu and the Roots on the New Amerykah/Vortex Tour 2008 AD at 7 Saturday night at Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave. Tickets are $53-$93. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.