Few soul albums in recent memory set fire to their listeners’ wigs like Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War did, and with such irresistible grooves for that matter. Released in a year of political transition and after nearly a decade of a seemingly uninterrupted parade of disasters, its sound and its vision were paranoid and agitated. Yet deep within Badu’s skewed and disoriented funk maelstrom was a sense of joy and optimism, a celebratory spirit with the power to overcome all of its chaotic and dark tendencies. It sometimes felt like the house party at the end of the world, but damn what a party it was.
Two years later, arriving well more than a year after it was originally planned to drop, its companion album of sorts, New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh, finds Badu less fraught with paranoia and thermometer-shattering funk. In sharp contrast to its predecessor, Ankh is earthier and more laid back, a soulful and rich effort that recalls some of Badu’s earlier, more accessible work, while retaining much of the exploratory weirdness that made 4th World War such an outstanding work of art.
Backed by a fantastic team of producers and collaborators that include the likes of Madlib, Georgia Anne Muldrow, the late J Dilla, Ahmir Thompson and Karriem Riggins, Badu offers a much more personal and personable set of soul here. That three of the album’s tracks feature some form of the word “love” in the title should clue the listener in to the direction Badu’s taken this time out. Yet, while this may be a less directly confrontational album, it remains sonically playful and mesmerizing. Badu even goes so far as to declare her fearlessness in the gorgeously trippy opening track “20 Feet Tall”: “If I get off my knees/ I might recall/ I’m 20 feet tall.”
With Return of the Ankh, Badu once again turns out an album that’s less driven by singles than by a pervasive mood or vibe. Nonetheless, it’s a set packed with standouts, the earliest and most accessible being lead single “Window Seat,” a twinkling, psychedelic soul highlight that shows off Badu’s sensual side in a jazzy, coolly grooving context. Likewise, “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)” drops a breezy funk sound, awash in mesmerizing rhodes piano. Continuing the feelgood vibe are “Gone Baby, Don’t Belong” and “Umm Hmmm,” the former a smoothly grooving pop jam in which Badu admits to feeling “like a girl with the faintest crush,” while the latter bumps some late nite funk with a cinematic edge. And “Incense” sounds truly immaculate, pairing elegant harp sounds with a truly infectious bassline.
Lest anyone worry that Badu’s ambition is tempered a bit this time around, the diva saves her most sprawling track for last. “Out My Mind, Just In Time” is a three-part, ten-minute epic, splitting heartbreak into different movements, beginning with a soft and jazz-inflected piano ballad, then transitioning into a trippier, weirder hip-hop midsection. The final movement is the longest and most improvisational, building more layers of voice and guitar atop the more dignified piano beneath. Though the pace ultimately remains laid back, it’s a refreshing sign that Erykah Badu is never afraid to shy away from her more eccentric tendencies.
Were Erykah Badu to dial up the intensity even further after New Amerykah Part One, she might have run the risk of taking her innovation and artistic bravery a bit too far. Yet by offering an album with more breathing room, more fun and a pair of open arms, she’s crafted the perfect yang to that album’s yin. She could have created one of the best R&B albums of the past five years, left it at that, and still be a force to be reckoned with. Now that she’s gone and made another set of powerful, essential soul gems, she’s confirmed that she’s untouchable.
D’Angelo – Voodoo
Shuggie Otis – Inspiration Information
Georgia Anne Muldrow – King’s Ballad
Video: “Window Seat”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.