New Amerykah, Part II: Return of the Ankh doesn’t have songs. Erykah Badu seems to think that would be too formal. Instead, it has grooves with vocals, in four minute chunks. This would be a problem if the grooves weren’t so good.
Like its predecessor, New Amerykah, Part I, this album is a kind of love letter to seventies funk and R’n’B. Where it differs from that earlier record is outlook. Part I had political and social agendas, and even if Badu’s particular mix of anger, wit, and Nation of Islam cosmology sometimes struggled under its own weight, it sounded terrific. (Then again, you could sing scone recipes over those funk tracks and still set peoples’ minds on fire.) Part II, both musically and politically, is a gentler record, one that’s primarily interested in mapping an inner world of introspection and love. That’s not to say that Badu is baring her soul: while she’s an extremely talented singer, her nasal voice is not what you would call an expressive instrument. Inscrutability is a huge part of Badu’s charm, and she knows it. The feeling of stasis that a lot of people get from her music (me included) obviously has to do with instrumentation and song structure–Badu regularly ignores the verse-chorus alternation that lets us feel that a song has a final destination in mind. But it’s also true that she very rarely tries to move from one emotional place to another. Here, she tries it just once — in a song called “Umm Hmm.” It turns out to be the album’s worst track.
But listen, near the album’s end, to “Fall In Love (Your Funeral).” The drum rides well in front of the beat, the synthesizer hits well behind, and Badu’s voice winds confidently in between the two, right on time. Try to nod your head. You’ll feel yourself dragged back and forth between the drums and the synths. This can be stressful listening, but it’s a kind of stress that reminds you why there’s only one letter separating the word “funk” from that other word. “Prepare to have Yo shit rearranged / The way I say,” Badu sings. Yes, ma’am.