In a lot of ways, everything we need to know about Erykah Badu's latest, New Amerykah pt. 2: Return of the Ankh, can be found in a brief comparison between the cover of this album, and that of its predecessor, New Amerykah pt. 1: 4th World War. The cover to the previous release was a dark, angry affair. Badu's face was set for battle, her hands raised in fists, and her afro was comprised of images signifying a nation in crisis: factories, handcuffs, a syringe, an SUV, dollar signs, a toilet, chains. Badu's hair, on that album cover, it seemed, was trying to tell us something: we're fucked. But then, once we took a closer look, we saw more: a turntable, flowers, a hand making a peace sign, an open book and...a tuning fork? Badu wasn't just pissed about the state of world and taking aim at all the haters--she was setting out to bring shit into harmony, help us get in tune. While no album has ever had that kind of impact on anything, New Amerykah pt. 1 sure as hell didn't hurt for trying. In fact, as I mentioned in another recent blog post, Badu's last album wasn't just a great soul record, it was the best soul record of the last decade, and probably the decade before it, and maybe even the one before that. Just so we're on the same page, here's that other cover:
Now, looking up at the cover for Badu's latest, we see a very different type of image. The rubbish from Badu's afro is now a junk pile behind her, while the dark colors have been replaced by a brilliant array of flowers, and a lovely purple sky. Also gone is Badu's angry face, replaced by a more serene expression, despite the fact that the singer is now depicted as robotic--the post-human soul singer, having transcended the poison of culture. Even the albums' respective subtitles point to the albums' differences: "4th World War" and "Return of the Ankh."
True to the new album's cover, Return of the Ankh is a gentler, more loving affair than its radical predecessor. And, again, as indicated by the difference in presentation, Badu's latest is more concerned with loving gestures and a serene spirit, a preoccupation that manifests itself in ballads and cool soul grooves as opposed to the urgent pleas for justice and unity on the previous album. "20 Feet Tall" kicks off the album with a gorgeous melody, hopeful lyrics, and some of the warmest electric piano this side of Innervisions. Badu sings, "But if I get off my knees/I may recall/I'm twenty feet tall," an exhortation for individuals to embrace their own abundance of spirit. I know it sounds a little cheesey, but shit, Badu sells it, not just on this song, but through the entire album. Next up is "Window Seat," a piano driven piece bolstered by ?uestlove's slick drumming. The song grapples with independence and longing--the chorus repeats, "Can I get a window seat/Don't want nobody next to me," but by the bridge, over stomps and claps, Badu is singing "I need someone to clap with me . . . come back baby." The song is the kind of thing at which Badu excels--taking tired pop music sentiment and pushing it to someplace fresh and exhilarating.
While the songs on Return of the Ankh seem, at first, more familiar and less urgent than anything on 4th World War, they're full of daring ideas and riveting arrangements. "Agitation" opens with fusion-fueled piano runs and full-bodied bass--hints of Weather Report, or Jaco--before incorporating some kind of synthy, harmonica type sound that feels like it could have been lifted from Stevie's best 70's work. "Love" feels like a spiritual counterpoint to the previous album's "The Healer," opening with a jarring tone and spoken word intro about emotional frequencies before Badu sings, "this one is for Dilla," again, paralleling "The Healer," then settling into a solid groove. "Incense," is an ethereal slow jam, built around harp runs to produce one of the most startlingly gorgeous atmospheres of any of the album's songs. Then there is album closer, "Out My Mind, Just in Time" which exists in movements--a gentle, jazzy piano intro that wouldn't sound out of place in a Billie Holiday set, which evolves into something more like a spaced-out soul jam. Of course, no matter how outre the songs sound, on Return of the Ankh, Badu's insistent humanity is still the root of everything.
Ultimately, Return of the Ankh excels through its production and use of textures. The song writing isn't quite as immediate or daring as its predecessor, but there is something to be said for convention, especially when its wrapped up in analog keyboards, slick beats, and impressive instincts as to when to pile on the sonic layers, and when to scale back to basics. While Badu's career has been built on impressively consistent albums, the New Amerykah records have taken her to a new level. Part Two, by showcasing Badu's versatility and all around soul savvy, finishes the work started by Part One in elevating the singer to Wonder-esque heights. While 4th World War might be the slightly better album, both of the New Amerykah albums have earned their placement among the finest soul albums ever made.
The album comes out on 3/30. If anyone sees a vinyl copy anywhere in Oklahoma, let me know.