Album Review: New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh by Erykah Badu
Exceptionally Good, Based on 13 Critics
PopMatters - 90 Based on rating 9/10
“See, you don’t want to fall in love with me,” drawls the inimitable Erykah Badu to her potential suitors in “Fall in Love (Your Funeral)”. “Prepare to have your sh*t rearranged the way I say,” she warns. “You’ve got to change jobs… and change gods,” she taunts.
As its cover art would suggest, Erykah Badu has returned her gaze to earthly concerns on the second New Amerykah album, though — as on its predecessor — her work is as idiosyncratic as ever. In “20 Feet Tall,” Return of the Ankh’s opening cut, Badu reminds herself of her colossal stature: “If I get off my knees, I might recall I’m 20-feet tall,” she repeats succinctly, but it’s also straightforwardly surreal. It’s a fitting primer for the rest of the record, which combines her trademark psychedelia with disarming emotional candor.
I feel no shame in opening this review with a straight comparison. If Erykah Badu stands for the cutting edge of soul and funk, just as Sly & The Family Stone did in the Seventies, then The New Amerykah Part II: Return of the Ankh is her Fresh, following hot on the heels of a record which kicked down the door and smashed in the windows all at once. Because The New Amerykah Part I: 4th World War was a breathtaking piece of work from an artist who’d all but vanished.
The first installment in Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series, released two years ago, was an interstellar funk odyssey with room for tons of funny voices and avant-garde tangents. She stays comparatively earthbound on this follow-up, singing mostly about relationships over a set of warm, organic grooves. Some listeners will no doubt wish for more of the risks she took last time around.
Return of the Ankh was supposed to be issued earlier than March 2010. It's just as well: 2008's stupefying 4th World War provided such a dense concentration of charged lyrics over ceaselessly vein-melting production work that Erykah Badu could have been forgiven for letting five years pass prior to unveiling something else to soak up. Return of the Ankh is a relief in that Badu does not attempt to trump herself with a set that is even more intense and powerful than its predecessor.
Let’s get this out in the open right off the bat: Anyone who thinks there’s still much work to be done to undo the military-industrial damage done by Old America will have every right to feel crestfallen by Erykah Badu’s typically tardy second installment of New AmErykah. The brilliant urgency of 2008’s dystopic Part One (4th World War) still feels like one of the definitive State of the Nation summations from the eve of fellow Texan George W. Bush’s deposal.
It sold millions of albums, but there was always something underwhelming about the mid-90s genre nu-soul. It was indebted to early 70s Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, but what it really paralleled was the numbing second wave of Britpop: if the odd hip-hop beat gave it a hint more modernity than Cast or Ocean Colour Scene, it still boasted the same retro stance and accompanying smug belief in nefarious concepts such as "proper" music and "real" songs. Blessed with a voice like Billie Holiday, but so pleased with herself she literally kept wagging her finger at her audience while she sang, Erykah Badu was the genre's queen.
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War, 2008) saw neo-soul hero Erykah Badu tackling politics and social issues as well as going off on some strange sonic tangents. It was the kind of thing music critics love to write about but wasn't exactly an easy-listening experience. For the sequel, Badu is back to love songs over smooth analog grooves, and while it might not be as mind-bending as its predecessor, it is a deeply enjoyable excursion.
Erykah Badu's a narcissist, but narcissism is her art. The title of her debut album, Baduizm, turned her name into a religion, a concept. On 2008's New Amerykah: Part One, she sang, "Everything around you see/ The ankhs, the wraps, the plus degrees/ And, yes, even the mysteries-- it's all me." It's not that she ignores the world at large, it's that she invariably draws her observations and opinions back to home base: herself, her family, her experience, her music.
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.
Queen of soul delivers second chapter of her proposed New Amerykah trilogy. Stevie Chick 2010 Erykah Badu herself has explained that if Return of the Ankh and its predecessor, 2008’s sublime New Amerykah: Part One (Fourth World War), were two halves of a human brain, then this sequel would be the right-hand side, the emotional half. It’s an analogy that holds water: Return of the Ankh is a more meditative, less-explicitly-political set, eschewing the harder-edged future-funk of Fourth World War tracks like The Cell and Twinkle.
Two years ago, Erykah Badu dropped New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War, a dense, daring, politically charged manifesto. New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh finds the quirky Dallas diva cooing about the joys and jolts of love in a throwback to her barefoot and head-wrapped beginnings. She pays homage to classic 1990s rap on the Junior Mafia-riffing "Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)" and issues the sweetest sounding death threat in music history, quoting Biggie Smalls on "Fall in Love (Your Funeral).
ALAN JACKSON“Freight Train”(Arista Nashville) Over the last decade the country star Alan Jackson, who even at his most pugnacious possessed a parental sort of certainty, has only become stiller. Maybe it was 9/11, which prompted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” one of his ….