Mama's Got a Brand New Gun
“See, you don’t want to fall in love with me,” drawls the inimitable Erykah Badu to her potential suitors in “Fall in Love (Your Funeral)”. “Prepare to have your sh*t rearranged the way I say,” she warns. “You’ve got to change jobs… and change gods,” she taunts. With a nod to the Notorious B.I.G.‘s classic line from Ready to Die‘s “Warning”, Badu lays the smack down, “There’s gonna be some slow singin’ and flower bringin’ if my burglar alarm starts ringin’.”
The subtle irony is that “Fall in Love” samples “Intimate Friends” by Eddie Kendricks, which was the backdrop for Alicia Keys’s “Unbreakable” and, back in the ‘90s, for Sweet Sable’s “Old Time’s Sake” from the Above the Rim soundtrack. Here, Badu’s tone is serious but playful, and so gentle yet firm and carefully measured that you can’t help but wonder what type of person would stick around after hearing such caveats. Then again, she could just as well be singing to the listener. You may not want to fall in love with this 21st century siren of R&B, soul, neo-funk, or whatever-we-wanna-call-it, but chances are good that you will. That is, if you know what’s good for ya.
Badu, the self-described Analog Girl in a Digital World, is back with New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, the companion to 2008’s first installment, subtitled 4th World War. Back then, Erykah Badu had been on a sabbatical from studio releases following 2003’s freewheeling Worldwide Underground.
Part One of the New Amerykah set found Badu in combat mode, sporting the unflappable vibe of a righteous soul sista and backing up her attitude with more than platitudes. She was carrying some hefty ideas under her afro, and it turns out the “4th World War” was a social and political struggle that manifested itself in one’s critique of the world at large while the seeds of revolution and evolution resided within the self. The music dug deep into the spine of ‘70s soul, and experimented with heavy doses of space-age funk, improvisational jazz, and underground hip-hop. Backed by the soulful off-center leanings of Madlib, J. Dilla, Shafiq Husayn, Karriem Riggins, and James Poyser, and fusing their beat smarts with the influence of Roy Ayers, Eddie Kendricks, and Parliament-era George Clinton, Badu proved she was indeed worth the investment, as her sonic experiment paid dividends. Cinematic in scope, but detailed in execution, 4th World War was intense.
While Part Two, The Return of the Ankh, is just as detailed, and includes many of the same production collaborators, it’s more like a series of vignettes than a feature film. It is a smoother, more delicate and accessible affair, worthy of repeated listens not only because it’s a work of art but also because it’s so much fun. The songs go by so wonderfully and so easily, you’ll want to start over and hear it all again.
There should be no confusion about why the 9th Wonder-produced bonus track “Honey” was appended to Part One. Given the explicit “stay tuned for Part Two” advisory that preceded it, the purpose of that song’s sweet levity should be readily apparent. Commercially, it gave Part One a single with a fighting chance at radio play. Artistically, it is the introduction for Part Two, the canary in the tracklist that alerts us to Part Two’s shift in tone, approach, and “freak-quency”, to borrow the spelling of the latter from Worldwide Underground‘s cover art. Besides, we needed a reminder. After all, the delay between the two installments was longer than we expected, for a variety of reasons, not least of which being Badu’s pregnancy. “Honey”, and the J. Dilla tribute “Telephone” for that matter, would have been right at home on Part Two, but their position at the end of the first set effects a gradual change from 4th World War‘s funk-against-the-machine to Return of the Ankh‘s personal intimacy.
Accordingly, these parts practically beg to be played together, in one sitting. As a double album, I suppose “Honey” could have substituted for Part Two’s “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)”, and maybe “Incense”, featuring Kirsten Agresta Copely on the harp, would have been the sensible opening track for the second disc, since it actually references the “ankh” in Part Two’s subtitle via the line, “This is the return to life.” You might also be inclined to add “Jump in the Air and Stay There” back in the mix, despite Badu’s decision to leave the fun-loving Lil Wayne-assisted slice of spacey dopeness for the internet. The thickness of its sound is right, and so is the buoyancy of the track, but it would’ve sounded kind of random next to the themes of Part Two’s current lineup. I don’t really dig Weezy on there, either, but that’s just me. Fortunately, Return of the Ankh, in its current 11-song iteration, is quite a treat.
For Part Two, it seems that Erykah Badu hears the Egyptian “ankh”, the symbol of life, in the key of “love”. It is no mistake, then, that the first words she sings on Part Two are “my love” and that the songs are mostly concerned with relationships and matters of the heart. If Part One brought us the politically charged, musically eclectic side of the Badu charm, then Part Two is all about the interpersonal, soulful side. Where Part One points a finger at the external world (“Amerykahn Promise”, “Master Teacher”) and examines the moral authority of the finger pointer (“The Healer”, “Me”), Part Two delves into the inner world of affection (“Love”, “Umm Hmm”), self-respect (“20 Feet Tall”), and mutual obligation—or the lack thereof (“You Loving Me”, “Can’t Turn Me Away (Get Munny)”). Where Part One was cool, slick, and austere, even in its most personal moments, Part Two is warm, welcoming, and organically joyous, enticing listeners with bottom heavy bass lines, shimmering piano, wormy guitar riffs, smart samples, and some amazingly pristine vocal performances. Where Part One makes you lean forward to catch all of the action, Part Two makes you lean back to exhale. Part One revels in dissonance. Part Two searches for the right frequencies, and the record goes to some lengths to bring attention to the act of tuning, including a robotic speech at the beginning of the J. Dilla-produced “Love” about the “vibratory frequencies” of love and fear.
Part One broke away from the sound of her previous outings. Part Two reminds us of all that’s come before in her discography, from the “what-a-day” scatting of the piano busy “Agitation” that recalls Baduizm‘s hit “On & On”, to the vulnerability of “Window Seat” that takes us back to portions of Mama’s Gun, and even the delicious groove of “Can’t Turn Me Away (Get Money)” that brings to mind cuts like “Bump It” and “Back in the Day” on Worldwide Underground. In 2008, I likened Erykah Badu in 4th World War to Pam Grier in Foxy Brown. For The Return of the Ankh, she’s more like Pam Grier in Showtime’s L Word. She’s mature but spunky, wiser but not sardonic. Part One was a creative explosion. For Part Two, Mama’s got a brand new gun, but she’s added a silencer to it.
That these two parts of New Amerykah are distinct in sound and approach shouldn’t surprise us. Consistency of style and theme is more essential to double albums like 2pac’s All Eyez on Me or the Notorious B.I.G.‘s Life After Death, or where variety serves to illustrate the sheer breadth of the artist’s repertoire, like when Prince releases a gargantuan amount of music for a single project. Sometimes, though, the artist wants to emphasize something unique about the specific parts, like when OutKast shared custody of Speakerboxx/The Love Below between Andre’s disc and Big Boi’s or when Beyonce showcased her balladry on one disc and her Sasha Fierce persona on the other.
For his War & Peace set, Ice Cube released the “War” and “Peace” discs separately, and of course the themes of the discs were necessarily different and distinct. Same thing goes, at least in theory, for India.Arie’s separately released Testimony discs, Vol. 1, Life & Relationship and Vol. 2, Love & Politics. Volumes of a collection, I think, connote a sense of connection and concurrence, whereas a sequel, such as Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. 2, suggests a continuation or an expansion. It remains to be seen what Maxwell will do with his Black Summers’ Night trilogy, but Erykah Badu has arguably upped the ante when it comes to crafting these multi-part extravaganzas.
Gone from Return of the Ankh is the issue-oriented jousting of 4th World War, but it would be a mistake to think that the exploration of love, and one’s journey through that exploration, is somehow divorced from the concepts of revolution and evolution. Love can be radical and revolutionary, albeit understated and reflected, as Gil Scott-Heron demonstrated with his two-part poem “On Coming from a Broken Home” from his poignant I’m New Here LP. Sade’s “Soldier of Love” shows us love as the work of the lone, weary fighter, unlike many battle-themed depictions of love and devotion in which the lovers either work together or need to stop warring against each other. Sade’s “Soldier” has quite a bit in common with that of the rebel spirit.
For Return of the Ankh, Badu cycles through the various facets of love and longing. Along with the self-reliance and self-actualization of “20 Feet Tall”, there’s the clinginess of “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)”, which works as a funky remake of Sylvia Striplin’s “You Can’t Turn Me Away”. The “Get Munny” part references the Notorious B.I.G. and Junior M.a.f.i.a.‘s “Get Money” single, which was also based on Striplin’s song. Physical distance and mental closeness comes in the form of the buttery smooth “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long”, which is as aurally addictive as Worldwide Underground‘s “Danger” and uses “Arrow Through Me” by Paul McCartney and Wings as its backbone. “You Loving Me” is a musical interlude that takes comedic aim at the taking-without-giving mentality, with taunting lyrics, “You’re lovin’ me, and I’m driving your Benz… you’re lovin’ me, and I’m f*ckin’ your friends.” As if the words have suddenly tapped the singer on the shoulder and introduced themselves, she says, somewhat startled, “That’s terrible, isn’t it?” Then she bursts into laughter. The album ends with an epic, multiple movement study of devotion in “Out My Mind, Just in Time” that, among other things, proves how exactly how awesome Erykah Badu sounds over piano and melancholy strings. I just wish that the first movement, the Billie Holiday-esque “undercover over-lover” part, could have been extended. Hey, that’s an idea for the single or the remix (hint, hint).
The cornerstone of Part Two’s success is Badu’s vocal performance. She wants to fly, preferably alone in a window seat, but she wants someone to “want me”, “miss me”, and “need me”. Love is complex, sometimes contradictory, and she sings about it with the flavor of a first person account plus the reflection of a third person observer. Her performance is polished, as in the opening track’s cozy brilliance, but also raw, as in “Out My Mind, Just in Time”, the aforementioned closer that resembles “Green Eyes”, her three-part finale to Mama’s Gun. “I’ll pray for you,” she urges. “Crochet for you. Make it from scratch for you”. With a single flutter, she exudes both confidence and insecurity. With each fragile note, she conveys experience and doe-eyed enthusiasm, optimism and loneliness, and ends up wooing us and wowing us in the process.