Individuality is not something thats celebrated in the music industry. Just turn on the radio for proof that conformity more often than not is championed. For the chosen few who refuse to let their talent become their artistic prisons, the road is sometimes paved with gold, and other times filled with ridicule and abuse. Erykah Badu has seen both sides of the game. She was celebrated for her breakthrough debut Baduizm, but then neatly shuffled into the box that was the media buzzword Neo-Soul. Critics on one hand praised the emotional honesty of her art, and at the same time questioned her personal relationship choices. Throughout it all, Badu has maintained the ability to stay true to vision, and that tradition continues on her latest effort New Amerykah Part Two ( Return of the Ankh) (Universal Motown).
The album begins with Badu embracing self-determination and rediscovering her identity on 20 Feet Tall. The introduction features 9th Wonders using melodic, stabbing chords to accentuate Badus realization on her inner strength, and refusal to let a damaged relationship stifle her growth (You built a wall/ A 20 foot wall/So I couldnt see/But if I get off my knees/I might recall/Im 20 feet tall.).
It becomes a perfect sedway into Window Seat, the now much-discussed first-single due to the Dallas singers controversial video. The lyrics show the inner conflict many artists face in wanting to share their gifts, but also having the immense pressure of what fans and others expect of them (Youre so demanding/Tell me what u want from me/Concluding/Concentrating on my music, lover, and my babies/Makes me wanna ask the lady for a ticket outta town). As the video reflects, when an artist truly sheds all their masks and inhibitions, inevitably evolving, society and even their fans shun their expression. In turn, this can lead to an assassination of that unique voice, whether literal or through the media.
As previously heard on tracks like Booty, Erykah Badu has never shied away from the hedonistic and narcissistic elements of her psyche, but still manages to present normally frowned upon, natural human emotions as humorous and engaging. On Turn Me Away (Get Munny), producer Karriem Riggin supplies a funky, live instrumentation variation of Junior Mafias Get Money. Badu keeps the theme by crooning on her love and pursuit of currency.
The jam session, piano-led interlude You Loving Me ups the ante and plays with the listeners mind by crafting what initially sounds like a celebratory ode into a scandalous manifesto (Youre loving me/And Im driving your Benz/youre loving me/And Im spending you ends/Youre Loving me/And Im drinking your gin/Youre loving me/And Im fucking your friends). Erykah herself chuckles at the ridiculous but highly possible scenario, breaking character and chiming in thats terrible, aint it?
Ironically, New Amerykah Part 2s production is more soulful and R&B-based that its predecessor despite retaining Hip-Hop producers in 9th Wonder, J Dilla, and TaRaach. Thats a credit to their ingenuity and Erykahs versatility. Where 4th World War engaged and challenged listeners more on political and social levels (Master Teacher, The Healer), Return of the Ankh reflects Badus vulnerability when confronted with different aspects of love. Gone Baby, Dont Be Long shows her remaining stoic and understanding of her lovers need to spend time working (think an upbeat, legal version of Other Side of the Game). Dillas signature, sample- layered production on Love accentuates Badus celebration of new-found love, which is marked by a fear of it being cheapened. (I know I know I know you care for me/Because you cant get away/Dont play with me do I look like a play thing?).
The ubiquitous Eddie Kendricks Intimate Friends sample provides the backdrop for an aggressive Badu on Fall in Love (Your Funeral). She interpolates lines from B.I.G.s Warning to make it clear not to violate her trust and the necessity of one raising their game to be with her (Prepare to have your shit rearranged/The way I say Theres going to be some slow singin/A flower bringin/If my burglar alarm start ringin/See you dont want to foul things up with me).
The album concludes with the powerful, 10 minute track Out of My Mind, Just Time. Like Green Eyes off Mamas Gun, the song is punctuated by several distinct melody and lyric transitions. Badu starts with a dirge-paced, bluesy mourn in the vein of Billie Holiday over a lover she was willing to sacrifice everything for (Im a recovery undercover over lover Id lie for me/And cry for you/Pop for you/Break for you ). The next movement increases the tempo, and reflects Badus emotional state as she becomes more skittish about the situation, alternating between ecstasy and depression (Could this be love me high?…I cant feel/I am numb). The final movements musicianship combines the previous movements for a moderate pace, and finds the songstress accepting her relationship as toxic (Fuck this I am so addicted I cant quit Easy to blame somebody else/But not this time). Its a brilliant end to an LP rife with genuine emotion and empathetic themes.
Badu has been christened a conscious artist, which under the realms of Hip-Hop and R&B normally confines an artist to simply positive themes. But for Erykah, the term is better suited by its original meaning of simply being aware, as this LP like Baduizm and Mamas Gun finds her touching on all aspects on her psyche. The difference between a good and a great artist is the latter is not afraid to make you uncomfortable, and challenge you with the ugliness, beauty, and reality of this world and ourselves. Erykah Badu continues to do that with her career, and has crafted a worthy successor to 4th World War.