The first thing you need to know about Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) is that there is nothing you need to know about it. It is as satisfying of an experience and as perfect of a statement as anyone is likely to make via pop music this or any year. There is not a doubt in my mind that every particle of sound on this thing is vibrating at the exact frequency that Badu intended. The lyrics may lack the depth and wit of Badu at her observational best ("Otherside of the Game," "Tyrone"), but Ankh's verbal simplicity keeps this consciously introspective effort from seeming too indulgent (it's a slippery slope, too: "consciously introspective" is like the bib tied on before the buffet).
And there I go letting you know about it. My apologies for being unnecessary -- think of this as an ode. That, too, is how I think of Ankh - it's a serpentine ode to the concept of space and time. The two factors are what separate the "two emotions humankind experience," as a robo-voice explains in the intro to "Love": "fear has a long and slow frequency vibration to it, while love has a very rapid and high frequency." Per this theory (which places all other emotions felt on a spectrum between these extremes), fast and slow are as fundamental to feeling as they are to this album ("There's a strong undercurrent of bottom, a rumbling to these songs that feels good to me," Erykah has said). An overall sense of flux is evident in the lyrics, too, as Ankh finds Badu pushing oncoming love away ("You better go back the way you came...You don't want to fall in love with me," she warns in "Fall in Love (Your Funeral)") or leaving it as a form of beckoning ("Somebody say come back / Come back baby come back / I want u to need me" in "Window Seat").
It vibrates between and around musical eras, too. Guided by Badu's old-lady voice, which is so dialed into the interests of youth, it at one point gets chopped and screwed and makes note of it, Ankh sounds both like yesterday and today, if you account for both the old-school samples and the postmodern consciousness of sampling. Regarding the latter point, "Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)" uses unique elements of both Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s "Get Money," and the song it originally sampled, Sylvia Striplin's "You Can't Turn Me Away." It is a mash-up celebration of the musical art of recycling that forcibly merges the more distant past with the not-so-distant past. The whole album is that kind of celebration, really -- Andy Kellman put it perfectly when he wrote that it "sometimes resembles a glorified mixtape." "Fall in Love (Your Funeral)" uses another relatively well-known sample (Eddie Kendricks' "Intimate Friends," which provided the foundation of Sweet Sable's "Old Times Sake," among tracks), and "Gone Baby, Don't Be Long" sounds like it does (Wings' "Arrow Through Me" gives the track that same humid, gliding feel that the Isley Brothers' "Footsteps in the Dark" gave Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day"). There are times when Erykah's own past is recounted, like in the Jay Dilla production "Love," which samples Badu's own "The Healer" ("This one is for Dilla...") or the reference to "Otherside of the Game" in "Gone Baby" ("I know you got to get your hustle on"). I wonder if this specific referencing is, in fact, a reference, as it recalls the way MC Lyte's yelp of "Shut the fuck up!" in "I Cram To Understand U (Sam)" later served as the foundation for her own "Shut the Eff Up! (Hoe)." And on the repetition tip, as on Mama's Gun, Ankh ends with a 10-minute+, three-movement suite, "Out My Mind, Just in Time." When she gets to the line that goes, "20 feet out of ashes I can rise / like birds and children I can fly," it's all you can do to keep from saying, "Duh!"
Explicit repetition is often the signal of an artist not having anything new to say, of going through the motions like anyone finds themselves doing at their job occasionally or just repurposing what already worked. Here, it sounds like honest rumination, the declaration of imperfection. After all, it seems ridiculous that a single song would allow a person to move on from an issue -- especially a person like Badu, who's so naked regarding her status as a work in progress.
Don't forget that as a sequel to 2008's New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), this album is inherently a conversation with a past (that album was digital and political; this one's analog and personal). This album has been hailed for its relative accessibility, and indeed, it sounds like a nice balance struck between the languid sounds of Baduism and the woozy, freaked-out New Amerykah Part One. Instead of enveloping you in a warp of weird, this one sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder with its sense of the bizarre, like when the gentle piano chords and ?uestlove's stick-y shuffle are interrupted with handclaps and stomps in the bridge of "Window Seat," or when she announces she'll "crochet for you" in "Out My Mind" or the gloriously staggered multi-tracked vocals of "Gone Baby" or the chair creaking heard in "20 Feet Tall" (that's gotta be a "Sometimes It Snows in April" reference, right?). It goes to show that sometimes a little bit of weird is weirder than really weird -- or at least more compelling.
In her somewhat opaque introduction in the album's liner notes, Badu writes, "I don’t know much for sure, but I think it is safe to say that I am an artist." Indeed, in a field full of marketing schemes masquerading as artistry, Badu is the real deal. Every time I experience something of hers -- a concert, a video, an album -- I'm so thankful that we have this person, who's more or less on the musical mainstream, doing whatever the fuck she wants intelligently, accessibly, beautifully. This woman is a treasure. That may go without saying, but still I feel like I can't say it enough.