The buzz for the new album by Erykah Badu has worked its magic, with a good amount of that magic stirred up by Badu herself with her Twitter account. From the fact that this is the second installment of a planned trilogy, to Badu looking to find a way to clear a Paul McCartney sample and obtaining it in 9 hours time (because 3 + 3 + 3 = 9, more on that later), and the perception and misinterpretation/misunderstanding of the video made for “Window Seat”. If anything, New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh (Motown Universal) has gained attention from the hype machine of Badu herself and her music, at a time when some artists rely too much on outside influences to create perceived magic. It’s genuine, it’s true, it’s Badu. However, you didn’t want to read about the buzz, you want to know about the music. Consider this a preamble.
One common thing that seemed to come from New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War is that a lot of people didn’t get it. The first single from the album, “Honey”, made many think that the album would be similar to that, but it was anything but. In my review of the album two years ago, I felt that the running theme of the album made it sound very claustrophobic, and that when you entered the album, you were entering her world. When one states “I’m going to make a trilogy”, one expects for things to be thematic. Not a pure concept, but something holds it together. Many fans felt the music was too heady, lacked any hits, sounded awkward, and I felt people were unwilling to not only hear her make this kind of music, but for a woman to make this kind of music. It’s as if people collectively said “I want her to make me dance, I want her to sing me a happy or sad love song, I don’t want to sit and think.” New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War was very much a sit and think album. Fans loved it, others felt Badu had abandoned her sound, not realizing that what she makes are elements of her sound.
Now here’s Part Two of the trilogy. When the artwork was revealed for the new album, I immediately noticed one thing: the background color. Part One was black, total darkness, suited for the overall tone of the album. Part Two was now purple, and I felt it looked like as if sunlight was coming into the picture, or her morning/mourning. Sunrise and sunset can lead to the skies revealing unique colors, so I thought “well, that could be interpreted as the coming of the sun”. Does that mean optimism? The album is brighter, and if so, does that mean the album is more accessible than Part One?
New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh is an album that will be easy to digest, and to me covers the range of styles and themes that she has covered over the years. The first single, “Window Seat”, shows that she has not forgotten how to be cool, calm, and collected while at the same time revealing a sense of wonder in her musical poetry. As she looks at the world and her time in it, it’s as if she briefly shares the persona of the character of Enid in Ghost World:
so, presently I’m standing here right now
you’re so demanding
tell me what you want from me… concluding
concentrating on my music, lover and my babies
makes me wanna ask the lady for a ticket outta town
It’s as if the sorrows of the past are “of the past”, but still longs for happiness and sadness while looking for a place to clear her mind and perhaps someone to embrace her consciousness.
She throws back to simpler times by touching on Sylvia Striplin‘s “You Can’t Turn Me Away” and interpolating the song that sampled it, Junior M.A.F.I.A.‘s “Get Money”, and one can easily see this becoming a hit for her. “Umm Hmm” is complimented with a background featuring luxurious strings, immediately reminding the listener of a time (mid to late 70’s) when soul orchestras were once a part of the norm. It brings back a feeling when an arrangement could make or break a song, and with lyrics such as
What I’ve liked about Badu in the past is that she is more than willing to explore a theme in a song that’s five minutes or more. On this album, “Out My Mind, Just In Time” goes for a little over ten minutes, and it goes through different movements in order for her to get to its core in an imaginative way. She has never hesitated to share her Dallas, Texas upbringing, and for a brief second she shows love to her city by offering an audio salute to the late DJ Screw (she honored DJ Screw in “Love Of My Life“). Anyone who has ever loved it when Badu seems to get lost in song but is very much in control will love it as the song just gets deeper into the smooth and soothing groove. It’s sensual, it’s sexy, it’s fearful, it’s beauty, it’s the 3am eternal vibe that only leads to the point of no return, and she knows you’re under her spell, the reason why you listen in the first place.
“I love how you make me feel/let’s jump off into your world”, it’s as if she’s not only speaking to a man of interest, but to the music who help carry her to accomplish her emotional mission. Love is very much in the air for her, and “Love” sounds like she came across some fine weed and is sharing it with anyone who wishes to share themselves with her. It’s loose and (cue Biz Markie sample) “fonkay”, the guitars are kind of on the Johnny “Guitar” Watson vibe, and if you listen deep enough, you may sense and smell the right smoke coming out of the speakers. “Fall In Love (Your Funeral)” could be about the death of someone, but since Badu has always shared her love and admiration of hip-hop over the years, it’s almost as if she’s communicating with the lyrics of Jane Child‘s “Don’t Wanna Fall In Love” to say that the death of whatever entity she speaks about is hard, but she’ll fight it until the end. Perhaps Badu is also saying that she used to love H.E.R. too, and doesn’t wish to see it put to rest just yet. Maybe.
As for that McCartney sample, the use of Wings‘ “Arrow Through Me” in “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long” keeps her desiring that certain man of interest, knowing that he has to do what he has to do to make a living (“I know you got to get your hustle on”), but tells him “gone baby, gone baby, don’t be long”. It’s as if Badu is speaking to McCartney’s original song, so we’re now hearing her sing as if she has an arrow through her, but she deals with the pain until her man returns. The way she created this song, one could easily see her incorporating Bobby Brown‘s “Rock Witcha” since the melody of the first verse would fit in perfectly.
While you go into the album expecting anything and everything, you then realize that the running theme is a bit more comprehendable. What also works about New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh is that what you end up hearing is one hell of a solid album, not just an album of random songs that were slapped together just because she has new songs to share. While you will definitely pick out favorite songs, it feels like a proper album, you want to hear it from start to finish, you want to take on the excursion she has created only because it sounds… welcoming. That’s what an album is about, the knowledge of the musical excursion and feeling/sensing that the ride will lead to something pleasurable, wanting you to want. It’s very cohesive, the flow is incredible, and it’s something you’ll want to tell everyone about, even though you’re not quite sure how to describe it. Just tell them “this is what an album is about” or “this is what soul music is”. You can point the finger and maybe not know how to describe it. Just tell them Badu soul is from the soul, and this fact you can’t deny. Badu probably would smirk and say “yes, this album is very much from me, myself and I.”
Short version: it’s a musical kiss that two can share. Get some lip balm.
The mathematical sequence of 3 + 3 + 3 mentioned in this review has to do with how Badu has announced the release date for the album: 3/3/3. One can interpret this as referring to 3 (March) + 3 (30th = 3 + 0) + 3 (2010 = 2 + 0 + 1 + 0). Seeing as this is a trilogy, the symbolism of 3 is there, and a few have looked to the cover to find “clues” that are in triplicate.)