In ancient Egypt, the hieroglyphic character of the ankh at the fingertips of a goddess symbolized eternal life. If Erykah Badu’s “cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone,” as she so coquettishly proclaims in the legendary single “On & On” from her dazzling 1997 debut, Baduizm, her latest opus, NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO: RETURN OF THE ANKH, the follow-up to 2008’s critically acclaimed New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War, represents the point in Erykah’s career where she has traveled that cipher’s full 360 degrees and been revitalized. The new album, a warm recital of personal philosophies on love and heartbreak, marries the understated wit of the old Erykah to the sonically venturesome new Erykah. On NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO, structured ballads and airy jam sessions coexist peacefully in the same soulful arena.
Besides the album’s posh synapses and poetic out-of-the-boxness, Badu put her executive producer title to good use, enlisting many of the same producers that made New Amerykah Part One such a rich audio feast. This time around, the cast of usual suspects—9th Wonder, Madlib, James Poyser, Sa-Ra’s Shafiq Husayn, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jah Born, R.C. Williams, Ta’Raach, Karriem Riggins, and the spectral J Dilla—are not so easily identifiable, outdoing themselves with arrangements that step out of their signature realms of production. Take, for instance, NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO’s intro track “20 Feet Tall,” which finds Badu’s astral “I Can” theme matched with a sparse and uncharacteristic 9th Wonder production interpolated by James Poyser on keys. “Erykah is fantastic at speaking on a woman’s point a view on things,” says 9th Wonder. “She can create that connection between genders, even without the help of the producer.”
If unpredictability doesn’t explain NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO’s cohesiveness, then compatibility certainly does. Nothing else could account for the pure harmony on the album’s lead single, “Window Seat,” which features Badu’s seasoned vocals over a hypnotic thump and graceful keyboard riff. The mellow groove was co-produced by composer James Poyser with an assist from ?uestlove from The Roots on drums, representing a cache of genius that has been fermenting since Baduizm’s “Otherside of the Game.” Badu’s voice, frank and comfortable, sounds like it’s been privy to the same miles of history tread by R&B greats of yesteryear as she sings, “Can I get a window seat? / Don’t want nobody next to me / I just wanna take it out of town / A look around / And a safe touch down…”
Badu’s maturity, however, does not come at the expense of her wicked sense of humor—or her penchant for throwing sly hip-hop references into the mix on songs like the sprightly “Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY),” in which Badu waxes poetic about the power of the almighty dollar while paying homage to the classic Junior M.A.F.I.A. hit “Get Money” as well as Sylvia Striplin’s “You Can’t Turn Me Away,” which is referenced in both songs.
The Notorious B.I.G.’s influence can also be heard on “Fall In Love.” Produced by Karriem Riggins and featuring a recognizable piano loop from Eddie Kendrick’s 1977 classic “Intimate Friends” that listeners will likely recall from Alicia Keys’ 2005 hit “Unbreakable,” Badu finds herself lyrically inspired by a track called “Warning” from the late Brooklyn rapper’s phenomenal debut, 1994’s Ready to Die, as she playfully cautions, “You don’t want to fall in love with me / There’s gonna be some slow singing and flower bringing / If my burglar alarm starts ringing.”
But while the hustler’s anthem “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long,” which harkens back to Baduizm’s “Otherside of the Game,” is another standout track, the true centerpiece of NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO is “Out My Mind Just In Time,” a three-movement ballad reminiscent of “Green Eyes” from 2000’s Mama’s Gun. In it, Badu bashfully admits, “I am a recovering undercover over-lover / Recovering from a love I can’t get over / And now my common law lover thinks he wants another.” The song’s second and third movements, produced by singer-musician Georgia Anne Muldrow, provide a funky perversion of the melancholy track.
“Out My Mind Just In Time” is also the title of the cover art for NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO, which is a collaboration between Erykah Badu and famed artist and poster designer EMEK, who also designed the inspired packaging for New Amerykah Part One. The new album cover depicts an underwater image of Badu wearing a suit of armor that symbolizes the tough exterior she developed to protect herself from the harsh realities of life. The armor is her old shell and now she’s liberating herself from it by climbing out of her own head so that she can be reborn. Her tuning fork is summoning the vibrations of the universe and the purple-colored tree of life and purple sky represent the 7th Chakra—the Crown Chakra right above her third eye shield, which represents peace, wisdom, and spirituality. The numerical theme of three is symbolized by three moons, three hidden babies, three trees, and three ankhs. Closer inspection reveals that Badu’s shoulders are surrounded by many of the same objects that filled her abstract afro on the cover of New Amerykah Part One, including handcuffs, a foreclosed home, fast food, cigarettes, broken chains, and a military tank. Here, those items represent refuse and rubble from which new life grows into a vibrant garden of colorful flowers blossoming all around her.
In keeping with the concept of the cover art, NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO taps into Badu’s emotional side by thematically focusing on romance and relationships. “With Part One, I was standing at an apex, looking at what was going on around me politically, socially, and economically,” Badu explains. “With PART TWO, I’m hovering over me, looking at what’s going on inside of me.”
Indeed, Erykah Badu’s soul is a beautiful, elusive thing. It popped up from the water with three dollars and six dimes. It popped up in the Bag Lady who was gonna miss her bus because she was carrying too much stuff. Some of it told her ole man to call Tyrone to help him come get his shit. A lot of it cried warm salty tears for her green eyes when she discovered love could indeed hurt like this. Throughout her career, Badu has both controllably and uncontrollably given herself to her music. With NEW AMERYKAH PART TWO: RETURN OF THE ANKH, Badu defers to the fickle stew of emotions, laments, aspirations, and rants that strong spirits are made of, the same stew of naked passion that has made her entire body of work such a visceral success.