Erykah Badu: “New Amerykah” Part Two: Return of the Ankh (Motown)

By March 29, 2010Music & Reviews

Warning: You are now entering Baduworld, a land where the common rules of song structure, tonality and listenability in no way apply.In this alterna-zone, songs shimmer like mirages on the horizon. They’re hazy, suggestive things, without clear shape. Bass lines bubble, electronic pianos tinkle and percussion instruments tap, while a voice quavers around them all, as elusive as mist.

It’s an innovative mood music that Badu makes, an ambient amalgam of funk and soul. Depending on your point of view, the result is either a nifty way to make your mind expand or a sure way to make your eyes glaze.

An increasing number of listeners seem to fall into the latter category, if sales are any indication. While this soul shaman sold in the multimillions in the late ’90s, her flock now numbers in the hundred of thousands.

That’s unsurprising, given the increasingly elusive quality of her work.

Badu’s bafflingly titled new CD, “New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh),” represents an elaboration of the already difficult “New Amerykah Part One,” released two years ago. That CD centered on political songs, offering a clear parallel to its radical music. This time Badu turned to matters of the heart, mainly the balance between love connections and self-esteem.

The music, likewise, straddles sensuality and disorientation. If only it had more of the former and less of the latter.

Badu’s new songs develop horizontally, rather than vertically, letting funky bass lines meander on well before a melody arrives. The drums hold back, with careful swishes on the snare, while the keyboards maintain a liquid-like indifference. Badu’s vocals waft around the instruments, maintaining only the most glancing connection to pitch. For sheer number of flat notes, only early Mary J. Blige has her beat.

Amongst the undulations and incantations, an occasional anchor lands. “Agitation” features an itchy piano riff that gives the song spring. “Fall in Love (Your Funeral)” uses its Eddie Kendrick sample to add rhythmic heft, while “Umm Humm” allows the backup singers enough assertion to stress the chorus.

From the start, Badu stood as the most radical of the ’90s alterna-soul stars. Among her original peers, D’Angelo has since disappeared and Maxwell streamlined his sound into something more trenchant and sweet.

By contrast, Badu keeps delving further into her sonic meditation.

On one level, there’s something admirable about this. Her music suggests the step beyond such Marvin Gaye ambient soul albums as 1978’s “Hear, My Dear.” So no one can fault her for lacking nerve or originality. But at the same time, Badu’s music risks disappearing into its own mystic ambition. Like sand slipping through your hands, her music seems to get further away the harder you try to hold it close.

Watch Badu’s controversial video for “Window Seat” here.