Review Summary: Divine in both her endless benevolence and pure power, Erykah Badu stands as a towering monolith on Return of the Ankh.
The psychedelic sprawl of the cover to Erykah Badu's magnum opus, New Amerykah Pt. II: Return Of The Ankh, is less an indication of the content as the fearful symmetry and unbroken gaze of the robotic face in the center. Some of the most gifted producers (J Dilla, Madlib) and session musicians (Questlove, Thundercat, Karriem Riggins) of Badu's generation break like waves against her voice. Divine in both her endless (though sometimes deceptive) benevolence and pure power, Badu is a towering monolith.
She addresses the listener as "you" on each of the nine love songs that make up the album alongside outlier "Agitation." The effect isn't so much to make you feel like the object of her affection as to render you completely at her mercy. You're the subject, but in the royal sense. Take "Get Munny." She rides in on a backing track so funky as to immediately render her untouchable, all the while exhorting you to marry her even though she just wants your money. Soon enough, you're thinking about the rationale behind this. Would you take this offer? Her voice never rises above a girlish coo, but her calm is fearsome. This is a voice that could rally an army, and it's at the heart of what makes New Amerykah so compelling.
This is perhaps counterintuitive given how loose the arrangements are. Few of these songs stray far from one loping groove. But these grooves play tricks on you. Is "Fall In Love (Your Funeral)" a swing beat or a straight beat? It doesn't matter once Badu strides in. And "Gone Baby Don't Be Long" might mostly comprise the same few repetitive hooks, but it makes you pay attention to everything else she says that much more, especially when there's imagery like "I feel like a girl with her fingers crushed" involved.
Every now and again, we hear Badu giggling with her studio buddies, ***ing around on the piano or dialing the number to "that other bass player." Being constantly reminded Badu is just a human rather than some interstellar robot goddess charges the emotions behind these performances even more, and we know these aren't the feelings of a fembot but a flawed person like us. "Get Munny" becomes less of a rock-star come-on as an expression of the totally ***ed-up rationales every human cooks up once in a while. "I just want your money, but I'm awesome, so why not marry me?"
Ten-minute, multi-part suites like New Amerykah's coda, "Out My Mind, Just In Time," are traditionally the thematic meat of the record. But instead, "Out My Mind" is a deflation. Badu no longer sings like a deity, instead slurring her words and launching into yowling melisma like a drunken lounge singer toying with a grand piano at three in the morning. Though it's slapdash, "Out My Mind" is starkly beautiful at times, and it's as long a runway as an album that soars to such dizzying heights needs to come down.