Erykah Badu New Amerykah Part 2: Return Of The Ankh(Universal Motown) Buy it from Insound
It’s hard not to get frustrated with the neo-soul crowd. The laid-back funk of their musical make-up seems to have infected their work-ethic, and the most popular artists of the movement have been quiet for years: D’Angelo’s Voodoo is still awaiting its follow up 10 years later, and Maxwell’s (albeit excellent) BLACKsummer’snight took almost a decade to arrive.
One exception is Erykah Badu, who has released several albums since her debut, Baduizm, to relatively lukewarm critical response. That was until 2008’s belligerent New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), which was easily one of the highlights of that year. Registering the unease permeating throughout America (and pretty much the whole world), it nodded to Sly, Curtis, Marvin and more, and gave us hope that the social awareness that is so painfully absent from today’s chart-topping R&B set could be found elsewhere in the genre. It was challenging, but that was part of its appeal; it bolstered the album’s claim to be a ‘serious’ record and allowed the lyrical tension to be represented sonically.
Fast-forward 2 years (though in typical neo-soul fashion this was already over a year later than promised) and we were given a sneak preview of her upcoming album – or so many of us thought. Badu collaborated with Lil’ Wayne and Bilal (where’s he gone?) and released Jump In The Air (And Stay There), an anthemic cut more ready for the dancefloor than Badu has attempted before. Though the lyrical focus isn’t as high-minded as New Amerykah Part One, the beat is insistent, Badu’s delivery is less languid, more zealous, and the song as a whole appeared to fresh ears as a worthy follow-up to 2008’s effort. For many, I’m sure, New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh) will immediately sound like a disappointment in comparison. That urgency is gone, and so is Badu’s overtly broader focus.
But, as ever with Badu, if we dig a little deeper we’re repaid in dividends. Fine, this isn’t political, but it is personal, comical, sad, satirical, intelligent and refreshingly honest. From the moment Badu sings ‘My love / what did I do / to make you fall / so far from me?’ on the laid-back wash of opener 20 Feet Tall we’re aware the album has taken a different tact from its predecessor. It’s about relationships, for a start, and its mood is contemplative, not confrontational. Once the funk-lite of Window Seat kicks in we have confirmation: New Amerykah Part Two has more in common with Baduizm than anything else. And why not? After the assured social focus of New Amerykah Part One, perhaps it’s too much to expect another album so intensely political in its focus.
The truth, as it turns out, is that those expectations are merely misplaced. Badu unearths a widely known but little registered truth, that the personal and the public wear us down as legitimately and vehemently as each other. For this reason, despite its similarities with Baduizm, there’s no question as to whether this is a fitting follow-up to New Amerykah Part One. Repeated listens reveal tensions that frequently undermine the comfort of Badu’s often indolent delivery. Indeed, the call for self-empowerment in 20 Feet Tall is undermined by its eerie piano motif, and the lack of climactic catharsis leaves the whole thing dangling precariously as a desperate plea rather than a defiant mantra. Badu is a confident performer, for sure, but as the album glides on we become increasinly aware that in her every day life there is anxiety in all directions. Nowhere is this demonstrated better than on Window Seat, wherein Badu admits frankly to her lover, ‘I need you to want me / I need you to miss me’.
Elsewhere the album nods heavily to Stevie Wonder (Agitation), satirises money-hungry relationship seekers (Turn Me Away [Get Munny]), and celebrates and laments relationships in equal measure in the unhurried, stripped-down funk of Love and Fall In Love [Your Funeral]). At all times Badu appeals to the intelligence, but it wouldn’t be quite so irresistible without the liquid grooves that punctuate the album at every turn. There are a couple of tracks that could easily find commercial success (although, sadly, they most likely won’t), most notably Window Seat (the song’s video has caused a great deal of controversy already) and the acquiescent Gone Baby Don’t Be Long, which jives along with a pleasant nod to Curtis Mayfield.
If New Amerykah Part Two doesn’t continue from its predecessor as we thought it would then it is only testament to an artist who has always effortlessly defied expectations and pushed boundaries. It is an accomplished yet often tense album that oozes quality and confidence in both production and delivery. Moreover, it’s a candid album, and at every turn we feel as though we’re being given full exposure to Badu’s entire universe: the good, the bad and the ugly. Perhaps this is not a new trend – certainly her album titles would suggest not – but now Badu seems to have found a voice that can portray the full complexity of her universe. She’s seen enough now, learnt enough, it seems, that she knows never to get too comfortable. In the context of the two albums, the image conjured in Window Seat is telling: ‘On this porch I’m rockin’ / back and forth like Lightnin’ Hopkins’, she sings, reminding us that art can be about relationships or war; it is our intimate, personal connection to it that affects us.5 May, 2010 - 12:29 — Paul Fowler