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New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh)
After taking us to a technophilic, post-apocalptic future rogue state on 2008's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
, Erykah Badu's sequel is a predictably inverse swing of the pendulum back from social commentary and politics towards more personal and traditional R&B topics. Not that New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh)
is conventional or conservative in any way except in comparison to its way-out-there forbearer. There's a rumbling sparseness to the whole record, aided by a fluid electronic bass that flows under the dreamy, jazzy and funk production on nearly every track.
This almost ever-present hum covers the record in a lulling, murky film, like a thick fog out of which each successive song glides. Weirdly, though, it also makes for a virtually non-stop low rattle that fills your ears at the quietest moments, focusing attention even when it seems that nothing is happening. We hear it powering up into a high-pitch whine on the surreal opener "20 Feet Tall" and burning itself out like some elemental radioactive substance reaching its half-life on the closing ten-minute triptych "Out of Mind, Just In Time." In between, this foundation of fuzzy noise props up an impressive and crisp collection of instrumentals on which Badu moves between her ethereal (especially when repeatedly paired with a harp), nearly weightless smooth tone and the more rounded, exactingly enunciated trademark Texan twang. As with most of Badu's work, her latest rewards attentive, start-to-finish listeners, which would seem like an unreasonable demand if the record didn't have an uncanny way of luring you in before revealing its true character.
Return of the Ankh
is book-ended with floating, dreamlike and hallucinatory tracks, like the jaunty, tingling lead single "Window Seat,"
which is full of evocative details and conflicting desires. "Incense," opening with a one-minute harp solo, is practically hymnal in its minimalism, condensing from a light sprinkle to a thick mist before evaporating completely. But these ethereal tracks come off as sonic framing devices for the album's dominant sound, a crunchy blend of funk, jazz and soul that's more reminiscent of Badu's first three albums than the hard-edged and aggressively experimental 4th World War
. There's the pair of short, perfectly structured piano-powered treats: the expressive "Agitation," which evokes the on-edge macho irritability it recounts; and a feminine response of sorts, "You Loving Me (session)," a funny freestyle parody of the gold-digger figure: "You lovin' me/and I'm driving yo' Benz/you lovin' me/and I'm spending yo' ends/you lovin' me/and I'm drinking yo' gin/you lovin' me/and fucking yo' friends."
Everywhere else crisp guitar licks, hard, mid-tempo drums and sparing soul samples let Badu's inimitable voice dominate. "Gone Baby, Don't Be Long" is an especially impressive feat of sonic layering whose driving beat evokes, of all things, Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind,"
though its scope of vision is obviously much tighter, focused on the frantic play of anticipation, delayed satisfaction and yearning in a relationship. There are no vocal guests on the album—wisely, the amazing but completely incongruous collabo with Lil Wayne and Bilal "Jump In The Air (Stay There)"
is only included as an online bonus—but Madlib deploys one of his trademark bottom-of-the-record-crate soul samples on the excellent "Umm Umm" beat, managing to compliment and play off Badu's lyrics without ever competing with her. Its swelling, scintillating chorus may be the album's most optimistic, an unabashed celebration of romance where nearly every other song finds love finally frustrated in some way or another.
Which isn't to say that the album is depressive or solemn. Compared to 4th World War
almost anything would sound sunny, but Return of the Ankh
is also just an unabashedly upbeat record, even at those moments when beats are nearly swallowed up in the shifting currents of fuzzy bass. The best example of this obstinate optimism might be "Fall in Love (Your Funeral)," which despite being a six-minute warning to would-be lovers that "you gotta change jobs/and change gods/you better get on away from here," is speckled with pleasant sonic interjections from sirens, laser-like zaps, and moments of static to curling electronic distortions. In a manner similar to Brother Ali
's recent turn from a pessimistic long view to a more personal vision, here Badu recoils from the end-times landscape of 4th World War
to find her tentative version of Obama-era hope on a smaller scale. This makes for a record that doesn't announce itself as innovative and unique so loudly as the previous, but that does have the advantage of creating some room for a better future. This possibility for rebirth sets the tone for the aptly titled Return of the Ankh
right from the start, on "20 Feet Tall": "But if I get off my knees/I might recall/I'm twenty feet tall."