New Amerykah, Part Two (Return of the Ankh)
(Universal Motown; 2010)
By Chet Betz | 13 April 2010
A couple years ago Erykah Badu released an album that was a deconstruction and then re-invention of hip-hop. It was this site’s #4 album of the decade just past. You probably remember all this as you just finished reading our EOD list after a couple weeks of scavenging away at the hulking blurbs. Anyway, that record was called New Amerykah, Part One: 4th World War, teasing us with the promise of a “Part Two.” Well, here is Part Two. It is called Return of the Ankh. It is not a deconstruction or re-invention or whatever. It is a pretty good Badu album. Clay stated upon its arrival to our staff’s eager ears that he really digs it while, somewhat tellingly, putting it right around or just under the quality of Baduizm (1997). Which is to say that Part Two may or may not make, I dunno, our top thirty of the year? Top forty? This is the state of things.
The first New Amerykah was something we hadn’t really heard before—not like that. It was neo-hip-hop. The second New Amerykah is something that we very much have heard before, from Badu herself and a multitude of afro-freaking and/or soul-patched others. It is neo-soul. Did that just read like a shrug? Sorry. Yes, Badu does neo-soul better than just about anybody not named D’Angelo (or named D’Angelo, for that matter), and this is one of her best records, so neo-soul now gets to add another high water mark to the other four or five records that could claim such an honor. I’m picturing Mama’s Gun (2000) already in that company and waiting with hand held high, expecting a five from Badu’s newest contribution to the tiny pantheon. See, New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh is a record full of smooth, creative, grooving (but not too grooving) songs that are exceptionally well conceived, penned, and executed. Oh, and meanwhile possessing a great jazz fetish as a track like “Agitation” sounds like a Herbie Hancock jam condensed into a minute and a half. But it’s when Badu works with drummer/producer Karriem Riggins (as she did on Part One standout “Soldier”) that she really transcends, delivering on this record two of her absolute finest songs to date with “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)” and “Fall in Love (Your Funeral).” Badu and Riggins should just do a whole album together because, groundbreaking genre machinations totally aside, when those two make tracks those tracks inherently smolder with funk cum hip-hop cum beauty.
But pretty much all of Return of the Ankh is good and I’m sorry for the run-on comparison to 4th World War, really, but the comparison is inevitable. The title asks for it. This, to some extent, is a record of quotations and that really is the only direct connection I can draw to the pungent, rich substance of its predecessor. “Incense” ends with a reprise of the reversed vocals that became the vocal re-enactment of the famous Network monologue on Part One’s “Twinkle” (follow all that?). And, here’s a crazy aside, but Dilla-produced “Love” has a synth remnant at the very end that sounds exactly like something I heard on Foundry Field Recordings’ first record (indie rock). So, what is that, a Buddha Machine or something? It’s an irk in the back of my head, the way I can listen to this record and appreciate it and even feel most of it but also have the sensation that I’m listening to a somewhat generic or rehashed collection of sounds and styles…whereas Part One was a bit unlike anything I’d ever heard even as each off-kilter melody, spiraling refrain, and lush beat re-ordered parts of my brain so as to ensure their permanent remembrance. Sure, here there are some wacky oscillations and the like, almost like detritus from “The Healer”—and that’s part of the issue, too: what was once essential is now incidental, seemingly tacked-on to add, as Rolling Stone might label it, a little “weirdness.”
Closer “Out My Mind, Just in Time” is ambitious from head to toe, no doubt, a patchwork of asymmetrical pieces, jazz as a round of anti-melodies that sound like they’re leaking in progressively dissonant clips from a broken sequencer. It’s a little bit like the “weirdness,” though, gobbled up the song from the outside in and left a hull of what could have been had the approach been simplified or simply better. Badu the songwriter/artist greatly exceeds the reach of Badu the producer on this track (co-produced by Georgia Anne Muldrow) as Godrich-levels of love and care would have to have been heaped on each sonic element to make this kind of shit work. Too bad that what we get is haphazard mixing and too much compression, rendering something fundamentally intriguing and dynamic into a wash; when multi-tracked Badus start chanting “ooooh aaaah” (like some grandiose flip of the BGVs at the end of “Master Teacher”) it should be a jaw-dropping moment—instead we’re left admiring the idea while not in love with the sound.
Aesthetic over-reaching or under-reaching is really just a quibble, however, that’s symptomatic of the deeper let-down. I don’t think there’s been a review yet that hasn’t mentioned how Part One was the more “political” and “social” record while Part Two is supposed to be more “personal” and “intimate,” etc. But if it’s true that Part One was more “political,” it was “political” in the sense that it was about pretty much everything yet in specific ways (all still incisively conceptual and infinitely applicable) while Part Two is only about a couple big things (love, sex, and even The-Dream’s go-to topic, Love vs. Money) in a kind of boringly broad way. Badu doesn’t stop being a genius songwriter, and there’s something interesting (probably more interesting than I’m giving credit for, really) going on with the way she uses metaphor to entwine the obvious relational angle with deeper issues of self-identity in her opener “20 Feet Tall” (“You built a wall / a 20 foot wall / so I couldn’t see / but if I get off my knees / I might recall / I’m 20 feet tall”) and often returns to that thematic interplay, most explicitly on the closer (“built a wall / ten feet tall / now I laugh at it all”). But besides the fact that “20 Feet Tall” could have scored an anachronistically moody montage of Jake Sully learning to roll like the Na’vi, the truth is that the arc of this record’s subject matter falls well shy of the piercing celestial thrust Badu proved herself capable of with Part One. And that thrust was piercing because it was fresh and pointed, celestial because it was so fly Earth could not restrain it. It was, to put it plainly, inspired.
It’s in this way that the kindred Parts One and Two of Badu’s New Amerykah illustrate the difference between when an artist operates within their own cozy wheelhouse, adeptly gratifying their self and others fond of that comfort zone, and when an artist is seized by a vision of the way things could be, of some wild, awesome shit they might not even fully understand, and are hence bound by that vision’s power to relay as much of it as they can (see: what Clay’s talking about in his Ghostface blurb from our EOD). Here the difference results in a record that I really enjoy but may not be listening to regularly a couple years from now as opposed to the first record where every part of me wants to reach out and embrace every part of that thing for, like, ever. This time Badu wants her window seat, nobody next to her. I think she deserves it; we should applaud and then let her have that seat. I’ll just be over here, 4th World War stuck on repeat.