New Amerykah Part 2:
Return of the Ankh
We've all been there, in the post-breakup impact crater where you've got nothing at your disposal but selective memory and the conviction that you can't live until the person who rejected you takes you back. Erykah Badu's latest, New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh, is a guided tour of that crater, which is deep but not terribly wide. There's just enough room at the bottom for her tears.
This is the second installment in Badu's New Amerykah series. The outward-looking New Amerykah Part 1: 4th World War, which she released in 2008 after a five-year absence, was a comeback record largely made on her laptop — a huge departure from the big-budget production on her earlier albums. Personal and political, it represented Badu's re-engagement with the social consciousness of hip-hop, which hip-hop itself seemed to have mislaid. Her eyes were wide open, staring in disbelief, and her care for the world showed itself in her sadness and disgust at the state of it. She was riled up about life, love and the perversion of dreams in Bush's America.
Return of the Ankh is the polar opposite of 4th World War: It's full of self-pity, bathos, and baby, baby please. On "Love" she sings, "Just tell me you love me/I like it/You know it/So do it." Her voice is flat and she sounds deflated, like she hasn't slept in a day or two. "I'm about to go insane," she says. For six minutes this goes on; absent a hook, she just rides a low-idling riff into the fade-out.
And it's not an anomaly. On almost every song, Badu parks and meditates on a sample or beat, lamps on a gauzy keyboard riff or jazzily ooh-aahs her way to the end of the track. As unpleasant as it is to be denied a pop payoff (and in most cases a clear differentiation between verse and chorus), this denial is key to the album's artistic success: The music is a perfect analogue to the miserable emotional stasis of the newly and involuntarily single. Listening is like being on the other end of the phone while a friend sifts through the ashes of her broken relationship. There's no assuring her that she's lucky to be done with such a shithead. There's no sensible advice you can offer. There's no clicking over to the other line. You just have to listen until she's done and hope she finds her own way out.
Badu does break up this aimless, airless drift with "Window Seat" (the lead single with the naked-in-Dealey Plaza video). It's the most song-like tune on Return of the Ankh, and though it's just as dreamy as the rest of the album, it's not as dreary. Badu's still tangled up in her own neediness, but she's looking for an escape.
Here she imagines herself whole, looking back not just to when her lover loved her but to before that, when she existed independent of the relationship. But those are the only exceptions, and an album that's 80 percent sad reminiscing and lovesick mourning isn't exactly what you want from Erykah Badu. She sounds like a shell of the artist we knew from Mama's Gun — an animated woman with her missteps in perspective, and who promised us "a brighter day."
A version of this story appeared originally in the Chicago Readermusic@orlandoweekly.com