Review Summary: Badu beats an initially perplexing retreat into introspection - but give it time.
It's a musical truism that is literally repeated ad nauseum, but here's one more for old time's sake; sometimes, releasing an undisputed, stone-cold classic is as much of a curse as a blessing. New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
was a decade-defining and career-defining statement of intent, as unsettling as it was beautiful, and it put Badu's name on the lips of people who'd never tried or enjoyed her music before. On the good side, she'll always be able to point to that moment with pride. On the bad....what the hell could she do to follow it?
Much of the pre-release buzz about New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh
has suggested that the album would be a lot more personal and traditional than its predecessor, and that rings true; one listen to the effortlessly brilliant "Window Seat" is enough to confirm that, as is the video, where she gets literally naked to reflect the metaphorically naked lyric. Rarely has a lead single so neatly summed up the album it's promoting; amidst the otherwise sweet, face-value love song, Badu directly confronts her fears and uncertainties on how to follow up her masterpiece.
So presently I'm standing
Here right now, you're so demanding
Tell me what you want from me
So, in my mind I'm tussling
Back and forth 'tween here and hustling
I don't wanna time travel no more
The song should simultaneously douse and change expectations; it's clear that the replicating the futurism of 4th World War
isn't the aim here. Yet that's Badu's problem; that record was so incredible that anything less is going to upset some people. That expectation, for better or worse, is what makes Return of the Ankh
what it undoubtedly is - a truly great album that still disappoints.
This is an album that rewards patience and time, though, because underneath the new smoother exterior lies a batch of songs that are surprisingly loose and free (there's even an off-the-cuff laugh on "Love"). Maybe it's the result of having another child, or maybe it's the cartharsis that writing 4th World War
brought her, or perhaps it's even the Obama effect; either way, Erykah sounds an awful lot more content here than she did on her last record. It makes this an entirely different proposition to the previous record's futuristic political paranoia, and one that needs to be met on its own terms; there is really so little linking the two albums at heart that it's tempting to wonder why they share a title.
The one area where this album is a clear step down for Erykah is consistency - there's little denying that the jazzy "Agitation" is pretty mediocre, and it's definitely a record that peaks at its start and finish. "Strawberry Incense" and "Out My Mind, Just in Time" are both fantastic, while the bonus track "Jump Up in the Air (Stay There)" is hands down the song of the year so far. Yet otherwise, it's an assured, accomplished, and enjoyable album. It's not the album of the year contender her fans had predicted, but that's no real fault. If only any of the other great soul innovators had followed up their masterpieces this well.