Listening to Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh is an intimate experience best enjoyed uninterrupted in a single listening. Her fifth studio album marks the return to the playful, intense, moody, organic and fresh form that was missing from her previous album. Gone (with one notable exception) are free-form experimental tracks; in their place return brisk, smooth jams that provide equal parts soul and funk.
Intended as a companion to 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), the album exceeds the sonic and song quality of Badu’s earlier works. Not since 2000’s Mama’s Gun has she delivered such an accessible, well executed and recorded album. These songs are more personal and the recurring theme of relationships is easily accessible. Silky bass and drum lines are peppered by subtle instrumentation on most tracks creating a layered but not overproduced mix.
The title of the album refers to the ankh–a symbol typically associated with eternal life and rebirth. Although this theme appears throughout the album, Badu is never preachy; instead she tells personal stories that resonate in fresh and exciting ways. She often presents songs that are dichotomies: Upbeat instrumentation and vocal delivery with dour and challenging lyrics. This marriage of seemingly disparate elements is also reflected in the cover art which features both natural (nude) and unnatural (robotic) visions of the artist.
There are a surprising number of hooks in “Part Two;” indeed, the album provides some of the catchiest songs in Badu’s library. Her rich, expressive music is led by smooth bass lines and enhanced by a rich array of other instruments. With Part Two, Badu reclaims her mantle as one of the true originals in modern music.
Track 1: 20 Feet Tall (3:24). Badu exposes herself in the album’s opening track. She begins by questioning her relationship, reminds herself of whom she is and ultimately reaffirms her strength. An understated anthem, the song is quietly empowering with lyrics such as, ”Then you/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.”
Track 2: Window Seat (4:49). The theme of rebirth begins with an exclamation by a group of children. The song features a groovy melody that is reminiscent of the best and most accessible of Badu’s work. The album’s first single is punctuated by a controversial video in which she strips down, bares herself in public and is ultimately killed and reborn. These acts showcase the raw and unfettered nature that her fans have already come to expect through her music.
Track 3: Agitation (1:33). The album’s most exciting riff is essentially a ditty that is too short to be considered an actual song and features a funky, staccato rhythm with a chorus that would make Stevie Wonder proud.
Track 4: Turn Me Away (Get Munny) (5:25). The essential, funky Badu returns with a song that could have been recorded 20 years ago. The funky groove and modulated bass are featured in this fun natured song that gets better with each listening.
Track 5: Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long (4:39). This song may be initially dismissed as standard fare; however, you’ll find yourself singing along after a few replays. The charm of the song lies in the vocal delivery as the music is only mildly interesting.
Track 6: Umm Hmm (3:45). Old school charm meets modern smooth funk as Badu seamlessly blends a sample of “Take Some Time” by Ndugu & The Chocolate Jam Co. with her own vocals. The result is an effortless sounding song that transcends the sum of its parts.
Track 7: Love (6:01). Unfortunately, “Love” is just an average song that is too repetitive and the least dynamic track on the album.
Track 8: You Loving Me (Session) (1:04). Another ditty—again, too short to be considered a song—features a playful Badu at her most intimate. The jam seems completely organic as if it was an unplanned musical moment in time that was surreptitiously captured in the studio.
Track 9: Fall In Love (Your Funeral) (6:06). Another mild disappointment like “Love,” the track is repetitive and does not hold up to the standards set by the rest of the album.
Track 10: Incense (Feat. Kirsten Agnesta) (3:28). Befitting of the “Earth-Mother” image that Badu often invokes, this track marries a mellow groove with ethereal singing. As a chorus of Badus invokes the image of the Ankh singing, “This is the return to life,” Kirsten Agnesta channels Andreas Vollenweider’s sumptuous harp work.
Track 11: Out My Mind, Just In Time (10:21). The most compelling and experimental song on the album has three distinct sections and harkens back to the musical soundscape of her previous album. The track follows Badu through several stages of a musical journey that seems at once immediate and introspective. Part one features soft, crisp vocals and recalls the vibe of Mama’s Gun’s “Orange Moon” as she croons, “I’m a recovering undercover over lover/Recovering from a lover can’t get over.” Part two is a purposely disjointed composition that features discordant music played against a smooth vocal track. The final part of the song begins with a simple beat and lyrical structure. As the track proceeds, however, Badu’s voice becomes lost in the music as she repeats the mantra, “Not this time/Not this time/ Not this time/Not this, no” in earnest. The song ends with a simple piano line played against a harsh bass line as if the two combating instruments are purging themselves of one another and going their separate ways. The album ends with a bass effect that mirrors at the beginning of the album’s “20 Feet Tall” and infers that music, life and experiences are often cyclical in nature.
Overall Grade: B+
If you enjoyed this album, you might also like: Corinne Bailey Rae, Me’Shell NdegéOcello, Sade, Esperanza Spalding and anything by Mike Patton.
Erykah Badu’s Official Web Site: http://www.erykahbadu.com/