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Indisputably, Erykah Badu is an iconic singer of our time: As much as with anyone else working, her appeal cuts across gender, race, and generational lines. You don’t have to be a fan of neo-soul—the frustrating hodgepodge in which she’s usually lumped—to appreciate her catalog. From her 1997 debut Baduizm to her 2003 work Worldwide Underground, the Grammy winner—a craft-conscious beauty with a singular voice and substantial ideas—was simply a part of the intelligent popular-music landscape, an artist who didn’t need to work particularly hard to stir folks’ emotions.
Perhaps not surprisingly, she eventually decided it was time to start pushing herself, and on 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) she dramatically upended her style. Featuring disjointed, off-time, minor-key beats, the album largely abandoned traditional song structure, favoring digital production and voice-manipulation tricks. Lyrically, she roughly focused on post-9/11 America seen through the prism of civil rights. Many critics took the bait—indeed, it was one of the better-reviewed albums of the year—but some (including this one) felt it fell flat. Its activist tone was unfocused, and its lack of hooks felt not unlike a bowl of oatmeal without raisins or brown sugar.
Thankfully, then, the work’s sequel, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), is as accessible as Part One is esoteric, as warm as its predecessor was cold.
Out this week on Universal Motown, Part Two is committed to memorable melodies and universal themes, forsaking the digital music experiments for live instruments. The ankh is the hieroglyphic character symbolizing eternal life, and the disc’s title represents a recommitment to the ideals that informed albums like Baduizm (back when she was rarely seen without her head wrap.) Opener “20 Feet Tall” is a fairly standard-issue self-empowerment anthem, while “Window Seat” longs for reunion with a departed lover. But the CD quickly improves with the Zappa-influenced “Agitation,” the radio-ready “Umm Hmm,” and the stunning “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long,” which could be a front-runner for song of the year. Driven by thumping live bass and an almost-disco texture, it shares a rough storyline with Badu’s 1999 Roots collaboration “You Got Me”—it centers on a partner who must temporarily leave his mate for his work. That song’s tone was one of anguish, however, while “Gone Baby” suggests joy and trust. (“I know you’ve got to get your hustle on/So gone baby, gone baby, don’t be long,” she sings.)
There’s also some unexpected humor, such as on “You Loving Me (Session),” in which Badu offers up a frank assessment of a relationship: “You lovin’ me/And I’m fucking your friend.” She then deadpans: “That’s terrible, isn’t it?,” laughs, and the song cuts off. It’s such moments that make Badu feel familiar once again, and though Part Two doesn’t try to break much new ground, it doesn’t feel like a retreat, either. Most fans, in fact, will likely be glad to have the old Badu back.