Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh) (2010)

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by Pico

The call Aretha Franklin the Queen of Soul, but those too young to remember her will mostly likely know about the Queen of Neo Soul, Erykah Badu. Today she unleashes the follow-up to her dense and intense New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War (2008), which was often confrontational, cutting and unpredictable. It was her White Album (I have this theory that every major artist eventually records a “White Album,” e.g., a wide ranging, risk-taking artistic statement that’s messy with high peaks and valleys, but that’s for another topic). When I first heard 4th World War I didn’t feel I could adequately tackle trying to describe the indescribable and impenetrable.

New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh), on the other hand, is more inviting.

By expanding on the softer and smoother edges of Part One, but retaining an edge, Part Two gains in focus and digestibility in what it might lose in challenging the boundaries of what is called soul. By pulling back a little bit from being the female George Clinton, Badu reminds us that some reserve in the right measures has its own virtues. Anyone worried that she might have lost any of her reflective, mystical and inventive approach to her craft need not worry; like Me’Shell NdegéOcello’s Devil’s Halo from last year, the relative tidiness has an impact of its own.

The first six tracks are killer, or damned near killer. The floating “20 Feet Tall” appears to be spun off of the final song but is more successful in its celestial mood. The radio ready “Window Seat” (see video below) is where Badu once again adeptly creates a song that conveys the feel of early seventies soul while adding modern touches that places the song squarely in the present. With Badu’s Billie Holliday vocal delivery, deft lyrics like “I’m thinking on this porch I’m rockin’/back and forth like Lightning Hopkins/if anybody speak to Scotty/Tell him beam me up” and a icy-cool synth bass, it’s downright impossible to get out of your cranium.

Sometimes genius can be found in the small or well-hidden details; the too-brief “Agitation” samples David Sancious’ highly syncopated 1980 fusion piece “Just As I Thought” in its entire 90 second length, and Badu weaves lyrics around the song’s halting harmonic path, making it seem like she built the song from scratch (and if I wasn’t such a hopeless fusion-head, I would have been fooled into believing just that). Even more remarkable is plucking “Take Some Time” from a long out of print album by Ndugu & the Chocolate Jam Company (and also from 1980) to build the chorus for “Umm Hmm” where her vocal overlays are much more obvious, but that was precisely the intent, as it provides contrast to her original, smoother bridge, and links the two eras together by the continual drums and bass tracks.

And even if the album never threatens to veer out of control like the prior one, it’s plenty loose and finds room for fun listening. “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)” with a popping bass line and Badu’s playful lyrics is a great mid-tempo party song. So is the sweaty groove of “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long.” “Fall In Love (Your Funeral)” and “Love” find Badu exploiting extended catchy R&B riffs.

The album begins to become less compelling toward the end. The final track “Out Of Mind, Just In Time” is a three parter, and the torch song section that spans the first two and a half minutes show promise as she applies her convincingly aching vocals to great effect. Regrettably, the song afterwards loses direction and becomes a little disjointed.

So, it’s not perfect. But there’s a lot more to like—and even love—about this record. Even when Badu doesn’t succeed, at least she’s trying, and she has the wherewithal and guts to try things not even imagined by nearly all of her competition. New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh) is plenty good enough for her to keep that crown. Long live the queen…of neo soul.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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