Erykah Badu's latest album is filled with plenty of gonzo touches, not least of which is its title—New Amerykah, Part II: Return of the Ankh. One of the best moments comes toward the end, when Badu's voice is manipulated for a few syllables. The recording-studio software drags her pitch down into the comically monstrous, basso profundo range, and then, with equal speed, slingshots it back up into the recognizable realm. It is—as the kids say—a "WTF?" moment nonpareil. It makes you laugh, too—since the head fake isn't repeated, you spend a lot more time thinking about the fleeting seconds of weirdness than the music actually spends being weird: a neat trick. On another track, Badu conjures an odd pairing of characters when she sings: "On this porch I'm rockin'/back and forth like Lightnin' Hopkins/If anybody speak to Scotty/tell him beam me up." Few singers would invoke the country-blues legend just before dropping a Star Trek reference, but then again, that's the line on Erykah: always boldly going where no one else in the R&B game bothers to bottle up and go.
If her label was hoping to underline that maverick reputation, it picked the right pair of competing R&B releases to put Badu up against. The new disc from chart favorite Usher is so suffused with familiar radio bait—right down to unimaginitive use of Auto-Tune—that it could make you long for a more soulful approach. Familiar in a better fashion is I Learned the Hard Way, the fourth expert volume of retro jamming from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, whose horn charts and gospel-influenced vocals are a call back to an "old school" Motown-style sound. Because she mines this history so well, Jones's new work is more satisfying than Usher's—though, unlike Badu, she isn't pushing the form forward much. And just because Jones's aesthetic is patterned after a distinct era doesn't give it exclusive license over the term "old school," either—in part because the old school isn't so narrow a field. A quarter century ago, we had Prince giving us his chorus of deeply weird, tweaked-out voices. And a decade before that, it was George Clinton's Parliament and Funkadelic bands that boasted vocal effects and album titles every bit as freaky as Badu's. (Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, anyone?) The kicker is that, in 2007, it was the supposedly "old school" Dap-Kings band who supplied the riff to "Rehab," the breakout radio hit by Amy Winehouse. To paraphrase Faulkner: Old school isn't dead. In fact, it isn't even old.
Parsing the authenticity of schools in music can turn into an academic enterprise (think of the debate in the classical world over "period performance" techniques). Thankfully, Badu shows little interest in making generational claims—what's new or what's old about pop traditions—and is instead embracing whatever combinations of past, present, and future appeal to her ear. "I don't wanna time travel no more," she sings just before the passage that teams up Lightnin' Hopkins with Scotty—which is just another way of saying she wants all of history's soul forms to cohere for her at once. Decades down the line, there's no telling how Badu will be regarded—whether we'll think of her as a generation ahead of her peers or else part of a legacy that stretches back a good long while. But right now, hers is the R&B album of the moment that actually has a hint of timelessness about it.