Queen of soul delivers second chapter of her proposed New Amerykah trilogy.
Stevie Chick 2010
Erykah Badu herself has explained that if Return of the Ankh and its predecessor, 2008’s sublime New Amerykah: Part One (Fourth World War), were two halves of a human brain, then this sequel would be the right-hand side, the emotional half. It’s an analogy that holds water: Return of the Ankh is a more meditative, less-explicitly-political set, eschewing the harder-edged future-funk of Fourth World War tracks like The Cell and Twinkle.
Return of the Ankh isn’t, as some have mistakenly surmised, a return to the ersatz jazz of her 1997 debut, Baduizm. There are nods throughout to her back-catalogue: Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long quotes the “I know you got to get your hustle on” hook from Baduizm’s Otherside of the Game; closer Out My Mind, Just in Time is a 10-minute epic in three movements, like Green Eyes, which closed 2000’s Mama’s Gun. But while, stylistically, the album favours the deft, the dulcet, and the down-tempo, its soulful, jazzy upholstery still harbours a powerful emotional bite.
Greeting-card clichés of romance are absent, in their place a sense of love as a force with the power to make or break a soul: when, on the bewitching Window Seat, Badu sings “I need you to want me,” it is with such earnest, desperate yearning you’ll be struck dumb. On opener 20 Feet Tall, meanwhile, the shock of a break-up erases Badu’s sense of self, of her own strength, a theme revisited at length on the album’s final track. This agony is balanced by a similarly-affecting sense of ecstasy, conjured by the harp-etched reveries of Strawberry Incense, the erotic mischief of the Dilla-produced Love.
Badu sings of love with a reverence and poignancy that brings to mind previous masters of this form, like Marvin Gaye (whose lissom, feather-light melodies she evokes with ease) and Stevie Wonder (whose Songs in the Key Of Life essayed human existence with an ambition and sensitivity matched only by both chapters of New Amerykah). She is, by no means, ‘retro’ in her art; it’s just been a long time since anyone sang soul music as passionately, wittily and inventively as she does here.