Happy 15th Anniversary to Erykah Badu’s third studio album Worldwide Underground, originally released September 16, 2003.
When Erykah Badu dropped her stunning debut album Baduizm in 1997, a fresh breeze flittered its way through hip-hop culture. This was the arrival of a new voice, a new and increasingly interesting point of view. By the time Badu released her third studio album, Worldwide Underground, she had cemented herself as the avant-garde songstress of hip-hop and so the expectations were high.
Perhaps feeling the pressure, or just feeling worn out by recording, touring, and raising a child, Worldwide Underground hit Badu in the midst of an almost paralyzing writers block, resulting in an album that relies more on groove and mood and less on Badu’s unique lyrical flow.
Badu doesn’t tune into the frequency of what’s hot on the radio or what might score her hits. She isn’t tuning into your frequency. You have to tune into hers. And if you can, a pure musical delight awaits.
On the smooth groove of “Bump It,” she sings, “You know I love it when they play my shit sky high / It puts me in a daze,” summing up the tone of the album. A hip-hop hypnosis carries you from the opening trippy synth sounds of “Intro (World Keeps Turnin’)” through to the aptly titled closer “Outro (World Keeps Turnin’)” 50 minutes later.
“Bump It” with its gargantuan running time that closes in on 9 minutes encapsulates what works and doesn't work with the entire album. It begins as a focused and refined celebration on the power of music to alter states, to improve moods and shift minds. After a strong start though it slowly dissolves into an extended jam of congas and chants that seems to go on and on without rhyme or reason. It’s not unlistenable, just mildly challenging in parts.
When Badu focuses her energies on songs like the nostalgia hit of “Back In The Day,” where she blends the smoothness of neo-soul with jazz inspired scats and hip-hop beats, she knocks it out of the park, or more precisely enjoys a casual stroll out of the park. Likewise on “The Grind,” where Badu celebrates the daily hustle with a fierce verse by Dead Prez, and as she preens as the neo-soul sophisticat on “Danger,” Badu is at her baddest. But even these moments play more like jams than songs, either finishing overly abruptly or in the case of “I Want You,” drifting away in a blur of extended play.
“Love Of My Life Worldwide” is an overhaul of her in-between album joint with Common, “Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip-Hop)” (which curiously was included in some versions of the album as a bonus cut in certain world markets, and not in others). With this reworking, Badu ditches the laid back groove of the original and kicks it up a few notches into a party jam celebrating the power of the female voice. With appearances from Queen Latifah, Angie Stone, and Bahamadia, the powerful foursome demonstrate that the female voice is still a vital ingredient in the world of hip-hop.
Despite not being Badu’s strongest album, Worldwide Underground does have enough moments of brilliance to keep you tuned in. It may drift, it may wander aimlessly, but when it all comes down to it, these little quirks and explorations are what make Erykah Badu such an intriguing artist in the first place. And when the album comes into focus, it's a reminder of why Badu is a pioneer and a vital voice.