Sach O: Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

Sach O was writing about Erykah Badu before it was all trendy. If you want to know how Part Two of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series relates to the original, look no further than the album cover....
By    March 30, 2010


Sach O was writing about Erykah Badu before it was all trendy.

If you want to know how Part Two of Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah series relates to the original, look no further than the album cover. While The 4th World War had Badu raising her fists towards the listener from under a dystopian metal Afro, Return of the Ankh features Erykah as a serene organic tin woman in front of an alien moonscape lush enough to make James Cameron blush. Oh and there’s an Elven tree growing out of her dome.

What does that mean musically? Return of the Ankh is a mirror image of The 4th World War’s political anger and musical bombast, the flipside of an album that explored her fascination with the street level blackploitation funk of the civil rights era and the instinctively avant-guard beat-science of sampledelic Hip-Hop. Now concerned with the Afro-Futurism of 70’s fusion and the sophisticated artiness of the late period Native Tongues, Badu has crafted an introverted record that’s far less direct but no less interesting than its explosive predecessor.

The key words are “love” and “groove”. The first is the album’s recurring theme, an emotion explored in practically every song in detail recalling past work by masters of soul such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. The second is her method of expression, as almost every song is built around a tightly coiled loop (live or sampled) that turns round and round until it’s finally given release at its breaking point.

Album opener “20 Feet Tall” for example, sounds like a long-lost Tribe Called Quest instrumental sans-drums; a dark slice of minor-key jazz over which Badu vamps about her lover’s twenty-foot tall emotional walls. The song’s emphasis on vibe and atmosphere stands in direct contrast to the sugar-rush immediacy of pop-R&B that’s sadly become the default mode for the music over the past few years and its lack of structure only reinforces the song’s disorienting effect. Elsewhere, this forever-grooving attitude results in the endlessly ebullient “Turn me away” which transforms The Junior Mafia classic “Get Money” into a funk-band jam session exhorting true love at a high price, a running theme throughout the album. The strategy reaches its peak on the incredible Madlib-produced “Umm Hmm”, an ecstatic song built around a gospel-inflected oldie playing on what sounds like a transistor radio. It’s a remarkable tune and proof that post-Donuts Dilla inspired soul can result in great fully formed songs and not just beat-sketches if fleshed out and pushed further.

Ah yes, Dilla, his presence looms large over the album but unlike the elephant in the room on the Roots’ dystopian “Game Theory”, here he feels like an inspiration, a guiding light for Badu’s sonic explorations. His sole contribution “Love” is a simple loop that initially sounds like a better fit for Brand Nubian than an R&B songstress, but by end, its hypnotic simplicity has engrained itself into your head so thoroughly that the song’s breakdown feels shocking. James Yancey’s influence goes beyond that track however as the album’s back half pays tribute to the Soulquarian vibe they achieved earlier in Badu’s career: washes of sound, peculiar percussion, Afro-intellectual emotional paeans. For those shocked into listening to Erykah Badu by her last album’s socially conscious directness, this may initially seem like a step-back but don’t mistake subtlety for a lack of creativity: hidden in the album’s repetition are some of the best ideas Badu has ever had and possibly the best, purest, expression of her aesthetic yet.

This single-minded focus on groove and the revival of neo-soul may be the deal-breaker for some and admittedly, the album’s final 10-minute song-suite lacks the fire of Mama’s Gun’s “Green Eyes” (though hearing Erykah sing chopped-n-screwed piano bar jazz can only be described as “awesome.”) If anything however, this is the album where Badu has finally merged her desires for psychedelic shock with the musical sophistication of her heroes. Bonus track “Jump Up in the Air” explodes with a Hip-Hop ferocity unlike anything else on the album and makes you wonder where she’ll go next: deeper? Angrier? Live? Who knows? In any case, Return of the Ankh is a hell of a lot of fun: a shiny, sunny, summer album meant to be heard front-to-back while cleaning the house or going out for a walk in the park. Very few artists could pull this off after a record as aggressive as The 4th World War. With Return of the Ankh, Badu doesn’t just pull it off, she makes it look easy.

Insert Baduizm joke here.

MP3:“Erykah Badu – “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNy)” (Left-Click)
MP3: Erykah Badu –  “Incense” (Left-Click)

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