New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh (Universal Motown)
When Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part 1: 4th World War dropped in 2008, it felt like a Statement from the title on down. Two years later, Return of the Ankh feels like a vacation. Buzz-building public-nudity-meets-Dealey-Plaza video for lead single “Window Seat” notwithstanding, there’s little to provoke here, no calls to arms. Instead, Dallas’ favorite daughter extends an already remarkable run of recordings with a breezy (which is not to say brainless) album centered on infatuation, longing, and heartbreak that feels as natural as waking up.
Return of the Ankh continues 4th World War’s rejection of standard R&B backing for wall-to-wall low-key hip-hop tracks that mine the same slinky turf. The soul-sample-based “Umm Hmm” might be easy to call out as a cut by indie-hop titan Madlib, which it is, but the harp-driven murmur “Incense,” which is also by Madlib, not so much. Productions by James Poyser, the late Jay Dilla, and Badu herself likewise subsume themselves into a light-footed head-nodding flow that makes Ankh perhaps the easy cruising soundtrack for spring.
That overarching flow also means that few tunes stand out right away other than the escape-minded gem “Window Seat,” but continued listens expose the jazzy switchbacks of “Agitation,” the adorable chorus la-la-las of the girlish “Turn Me Away (Get Munny),” and the slightly deeper funk currents of the Dilla-produced “Love.” Again, there are no important statements here, just love songs, and none of them terribly worked up over anything either way. The vibe is so casual that Badu even includes an aborted studio goof that she halts. (“That’s terrible, isn’t it?”) But in an age where R&B recordings usually seem machine-tooled and market-tested for maximum get-over-ness, this blithe, warm-hearted embrace of an album sounds like a minor masterpiece. (Lee Gardner)