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

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Artist: Erykah Badu

Album: New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh

Label: Universal Motown

Review date: May. 3, 2010

“Neo-soul” isn’t a descriptor that gets thrown around much anymore. And for good reason: The school of singers, rappers, and musicians identified with the sound have drifted to new projects or dropped out entirely, and the collective’s constant allusions to African-American artists of yore feels more than a little pedantic today. When neo-soulsters were first raiding their parents’ record collections, they served a needed organic and socially-engaged alternative to the bling era. But now, neo-soul mostly sounds, well, old; it smells of a distinct time and place, and recalls battle lines, drawn between the self-serious underground and cash-generating mainstream, abandoned long ago.

Erykah Badu was the poster child of neo-soul, a woman whose reedy inflections and jazzy phrasing were so ostentatiously old school that they summoned comparisons to songstresses dating as far back as Billie Holiday. (She’s also been a lodestar for the subgenre’s success: you can mark her appearance in the mawkish candlelight of Common’s video for “The Light” as the beginning of the sound’s decline.) True to neo-soul’s form, her first album, the lauded Baduizm, feels trapped by its stylistic choices. With its mellow bass plucking, paddling drums and Badu’s coy mumbling, the dreamy record of 1997 sleepwalks on recent re-listening. In both senses of the term, it’s a debut caught in a funk.

Badu, however, has survived the fickleness of popular taste in a way that many of her peers have not. She didn’t turn to acting, television, or dig herself deeper in the late-’90s aesthetic hole, but followed her musical instincts, taking some core elements of neo-soul but shaving its heavy trimmings. The result has been an eccentric and persona-driven brand of R&B, a unique vision of contemporary soul music that at its weirdest moments chafes, but more often than not proves strangely endearing.

New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, her sequel to 2008’s New Amerykah Part One, is a lovely addition to Badu’s collection, a new and higher plotting in her trajectory. Although lacking an ear-grabbing single or a truly hummable hook, the New Amerykah Part Two does something that current R&B seemed incapable of: it charms. Badu lacks the aggression and declarative explicitness that one might find on the local R&B station; nor does she glaze her work with sentimentality. Rather, New Amerykah Part Two demonstrates an astute observer of mood. She is sad without being melancholy, romantic without being lascivious; she connotes specific feeling where other singers merely communicate general platitudes.

Badu avoids the syrup of her former neo-soul partners and current R&B contemporaries by warping hers words like plastic, alternately compressing and extending them. Her lyrics are sometimes difficult to make out and can dissipate in the cloud of velvety production, provided here by 9th Wonder, Madlib, and J Dilla. It’s as if Badu’s swiveling voice were the lead instrument, and the words her notes. At other points, her singing adds a gloss to the relative simplicity of her verses, no different than the way a standup comic adds pathos or irony in the delivery of a punch line. On the chorus to “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long,” Badu coos, “I know you need to get your hustle on / So gone baby, gone baby, don’t be long,” lines that, on their face, would be fodder for any thug love balladeer. But in Badu’s telling, sung in a higher, nasal tone, she is a coconspirator equally abetting her lover and mocking him for leaving. She is her man’s rock but hates being stuck in place.

Besides adding richness to what would be straightforward and predictable tunes, Badu’s subtlety shows off her sense of humor. There’s always been some lightness in Badu’s work due to her unconventional voice. Yet, as she’s aged, she’s become a cleverer performer. “Turn Me Away (Get Munny),” a parody of Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money,” that flips the chauvinism of the original into a gold digger’s boast, is the most obvious instance of comedy on New Amerykah Part Two. But throughout the album, Badu’s humor is present, though it usually appears in less grandiose fashion. On “Window Seat,” she sings a line in the third verse about “rocking back and forth like Lightnin’ Hopkins.” Imagining the lithe Badu tipping left to right like a bluesman anchored to his chair offers a small but nonetheless gleeful moment, and personalizes what could have been a generic plaint.

Those moments, like New Amerkykah on the whole, illustrate Badu’s masterful subtlety, her ability to capture a multiplicity of feelings in a single composition. This new record demonstrates a degree of nuance absent from Badu’s earlier, more didactic, neo-soul recordings. It showcases an artist who has not only outlasted but rises above.

By Ben Yaster

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