Picks and Pans Review: Erykah Badu

updated 03/10/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 03/10/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT

New Amerykah (Pt. 1, 4th World War) |

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CRITIC'S CHOICE

R&B

Whether wearing a head wrap or rocking a supersize Afro, Erykah Badu has been one of contemporary R&B's few true originals. She continues to play by her own freaky, formula-busting rules on this, her first full-fledged album since 2000's brilliant Mama's Gun. The disc—the first of a two-part series to be continued later this year—finds the neo-soul siren mixing seductive grooves and sociopolitical lyrics. And while it doesn't all work, it's always challenging and sometimes spellbinding. Take the head-spinning arrangement of "The Cell," with its winding bass line darting around mellowed-out horns. Or the haunting mysticism of "The Healer (Hip Hop)," an ode to hip-hop not unlike "Love of My Life." But it's "Telephone"—an atmospheric ballad for late producer J Dilla—that showcases Badu at her bewitching best.

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