Erykah Badu: New Amerykah 2: Return of the Ankh (Album Review)

Individuality is not something that’s 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 Wonder’s using melodic, stabbing chords to accentuate Badu’s 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 couldn’t see/But if I get off my knees/I might recall/I’m 20 feet tall.”).

It becomes a perfect sedway into “Window Seat,” the now much-discussed first-single due to the Dallas singer’s 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 (“You’re 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 Mafia’s “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 listener’s mind by crafting what initially sounds like a celebratory ode into a scandalous manifesto (“You’re loving me/And I’m driving your Benz/you’re loving me/And I’m spending you ends/You’re Loving me/And I’m drinking your gin/You’re loving me/And I’m fucking your friends”). Erykah herself chuckles at the ridiculous but highly possible scenario, breaking character and chiming in “that’s terrible, ain’t it?”

Ironically, New Amerykah Part 2’s production is more soulful and R&B-based that its predecessor despite retaining Hip-Hop producers in 9th Wonder, J Dilla, and Ta’Raach. That’s a credit to their ingenuity and Erykah’s versatility. Where 4th World War engaged and challenged listeners more on political and social levels (“Master Teacher,” “The Healer”), Return of the Ankh reflects Badu’s vulnerability when confronted with different aspects of love. “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long” shows her remaining stoic and understanding of her lover’s need to spend time working (think an upbeat, legal version of ‘Other Side of the Game”). Dilla’s signature, sample- layered production on “Love” accentuates Badu’s 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 can’t get away/Don’t play with me…do I look like a play thing?”).

The ubiquitous Eddie Kendrick’s “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…There’s going to be some slow singin’/A flower bringin’/If my burglar alarm start ringin’/See you don’t 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 Mama’s 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 (“I’m a recovery undercover over lover…I’d lie for me/And cry for you/Pop for you/Break for you…”). The next movement increases the tempo, and reflects Badu’s emotional state as she becomes more skittish about the situation, alternating between ecstasy and depression (“Could this be love me high?...I can’t feel/I am numb”). The final movement’s 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 can’t quit…Easy to blame somebody else/But not this time”). It’s 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 Mama’s 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.