Erykah Badu: “New Amerykah: Part 2 Return of the Ankh”

Given her reputation for being cryptic– and perhaps just a wee bit subversive– it’s no big surprise that Erykah Badu’s second New Amerykah album isn’t quite what it claims it is. In fact, what is surprising is just how much the first one lived up to its title: New Amerykah: Part 1 was a way out-there, esoteric space epic that seemed to have crawled out of its auteur’s mind fully formed, a bizarre concoction that mixed personal vision with political nightmare, every bit the strange fusion its title suggested. Number two, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly chart any new frontiers for Badu– and in fact, it barely qualifies as a follow-up to Part 1 at all, sounding more like a sequel to 2000’s relatively straightforward R&B/neo-soul opus Mama’s Gun.

“Straightforward” is a relative term for someone like Badu, of course, whose music has always been too personal and idiosyncratic to fit easily into predefined boxes, and even the most traditional songs on Return of the Ankh sound just the tiniest bit warped. Still, this isn’t the cosmic collision of hip-hop, funk, and soul that she orchestrated on the last album, and its songs are much less prone to fly off the handle into trippy surrealism or grim theatrics. The album opens with the sound of a radio being tuned, and likewise, the listener has to adjust his or her own preconceptions to tune into what Badu is doing here on her self-described “right-brain” follow-up, an album that’s less about illuminating a dark night of the soul than it is being unabashedly soulful, and album that’s less mashed-up manifesto than it is romantic mixtape.

Indeed, it feels just as much an homage to the music Badu loves as Part 1 did, right down to the heavy use of samples and the comparatively direct R&B numbers like “Window Seat,” a typical (and beautiful) Soulquarians groove propelled by James Poysner’s soulful Fender Rhodes and Questlove’s steady timekeeping. Sonically the cut could have been a Mama’s Gun leftover, but its heart is something new for Badu– it’s the most emotionally direct and available song she’s ever cut, a naked expression of insecurity and desire.

The rest of the album follows suit; the politics of its predecessor abandoned completely, this one is all about affairs of the heart, and Badu wears hers on her sleeve. The album opener “20 Feet Tall” is another standout: It’s a relationship song, but it’s also a resilient declaration of self-reliance and strength, a sort of thematic follow-up to earlier songs like “Cleva,” and certainly less abstract than anything on Part 1.

It’s music that feels good, which makes it a welcome breather after the bleakness and intensity of the last Badu record. At the same time, however, it’s a good deal less complex and inventive, its simple pleasures coming from the singing and the easy-going grooves. It’s hard to find fault with that when the songs are as winning as “Window Seat,” or even “Turn Me Away,” a jam that would have sounded frivolous on the last album but, taken on this album’s terms, is a small delight; Badu has never sounded more comfortable and relaxed making music, more sure of herself as a singer. It is, perhaps, ironic that it’s when the album turns toward the avant that it becomes less effective, as on the Dilla-produced “Love,” basically a six-minute sound collage that interrupts the album’s otherwise winning sequence of genial grooves.

The last song, “Out My Mind,” is also its most audacious: It’s a ten-minute, three-part break-up suite that, again, harkens to the conclusion of Mama’s Gun, but also serves here as a rallying point for Badu’s twin inclinations; its sound is vintage but its construction is forward-thinking, and its emotional directness shows that Badu doesn’t have to choose between playing the artiste and the poet– something that’s already a proven fact for those of us who know and love the thrilling danger of New Amerykah: Part 1, but it shown in a completely different way on this lesser but, on its own, perfectly pleasant, and evidence enough that Badu is one of our most prized soul singers, no matter which side of her brain she chooses to employ.

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