MOBO Album Review: Erykah Badu "Return Of The Ankh"
The hotly anticipated fifth studio album from Erykah Badu, ‘New Amerykah part 2, return of the ankh’, is finally here and, since its release, I am among an ever- growing swathe of Badu fans who have been deeply submerged in this other-worldly masterpiece. The first four albums, each works of art in their own right, have been an evolution and exploration through Badu’s diverse and sometimes paradoxical personas and styles. They have been edgy, sonically abstract, tribal, vintage, acoustic and traditional, though slick, modern, polished, progressive, cutting edge and electronic. This comes as no surprise from this self confessed ‘undercover over- lover’ whose own style moves convincingly and effortlessly from chic, couture and elegant, to rootsy, bohemian and spiritual, from vulnerable to gangster. Having such an individual command of style can attract strong opinions and ‘New Amerykah part one’ received criticism for being the least accessible Badu album so far. As well as tracks like hit ‘Honey’ there were some more bare progressive and experimental periods, however its politicised subject matter and moments of dystopia, I think, were skilfully painted with the occasional use of a more experimental sonic landscape - think Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark side of the moon’.
On the other hand, with ‘New Amerykah part two’ Badu has really brought it home. It feels like less of a sequel to part one and more like she has come full circle, bearing all the fruit of her endeavours, to create a body of work that has a truly timeless feel. For me she has in fact managed to take the far- flung corners of her artistic arsenal and weave them into this single and cohesive tapestry. ’Return of the ankh’ really is jazz-soul-hip-hop-R n B, of unequalled originality.
There are certainly no fillers here but there are without doubt some tracks of particular note. Principally the single ‘Window Seat’ which after its leak on-line and guerrilla video has been the forerunner of ‘New Amerykah part two’. It’s very reminiscent of Baduizm and mama’s gun. A mid-tempo ballad about a metaphorical sanctuary containing all the qualities of a good old jam, with Badu’s expressive vocal nestling delicately in the pocket created by Questlove’s solid groove and James Posyer’s classy jazz/soul keys.
Badu gives more than a wink to hip-hop legend Biggie Smalls in ‘Turn me Away/Get Munny’ sampling ‘You can’t turn me away’ by Sylvia Striplin, and giving her take on Biggie’s treatment of it on his nineties hip-hop anthem ‘Get Money’. She even drops a classic Biggie lyric on ‘Fall in love, your funeral’, ‘slow singing, flower bringing, if my burglar alarm starts ringing’. This stepping hip-hop track has some classic Badu attitude and a warm crackle that sounds like she pulled the brilliant Eddie Kendrick’s ‘intimate friends’ record that it samples out of her vintage vinyl box, put it on a turntable and just let rip. Both produced by Karriem Riggins, he and Badu must share a mutual love of the late Brooklyn MC as well as a creative partnership.
Also noteworthy is ‘Agitation’. Its intelligent arrangement and use of sample creates an accomplished sound, blending modern and traditional. There’s even some great Herbie Hancock coloured synth work. A personal favourite would have to be ‘Umm Hmm’, a collaboration with staple Badu contributor and production tour de force Madlib. For me this track oozes mass appeal. It has a chorus that leaps out of the verses’ laid back groove like a euphoric explosion which Madlib has clearly polished until it sparkled with his greatest production trickery. This track must surely be another hit single contender...?
Badu executive-produced the whole album and is a real artist with her hands firmly on the steering wheel of her artistic direction and creative hub, whether it is artwork, composition or production. And with ‘New Amerykah part two’ she has not only given us an uber-cool, deeply engaging album of superb quality but has also made a great case for the multi-sensory experience of the album as a legitimate and relevant format in an industry that is so obsessed with the three minute single. Track length can range from one minute songs or interludes to five minute jams, to ten minute long epics over three movements which feel organic to the point of Zen. Part two is so rammed with old-school samples that if you know your soul music it can have an almost mix-tape feel, however, it still oozes originality.
Badu is a serious artist with a large musical palette and even though she has really brought it home with this one, Badu fans will have faith that she’s only just taking it to the bridge. Bring on the ‘New Amerykah part two’ U.K tour!
- Written by Matt Hamilton