Erykah Badu: New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh

You may not want to fall in love with this 21st century siren, but chances are good that you will. That is, if you know what's good for ya.

Erykah Badu

New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh

Label: Motown
US Release Date: 2010-03-30
UK Release Date: 2010-03-29
Artist website

"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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.