By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
By Steve Weinstein
By Brian McManus
By Brian McManus
By Dan McQuade
By Dan McQuade
By Brian McManus
You'll get over it, your initial disappointment that Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, daffy title aside, is not nearly as mind-bogglingly deranged as you'd feared (hoped?) it would be. You had reasons to assume a certain level of insanity: such reasons as, oh, say, 2008's New Amerykah Part One (subtitled 4th World War and easily the craziest, fieriest, most spellbinding r&b album of the past decade), not to mention the volatile, mesmerizing specter of Ms. Badu herself, the best live performer on earth and probably among the human race's top 15 most fascinating specimens, period. Ankh is like watching her do her taxes or parallel park or something—a bizarre (but not quite bizarre enough) mingling of the pedestrian and the otherworldly. As if she's walking on water, to the post office.
Gone, mostly, is 4th World War's dense, psychedelic, sociopolitically incendiary mash-up of Funkadelic and Network (seriously—it climaxes with an eerie remake of Peter Finch's "I'm as mad as hell" speech, now railing against rims instead of toasters), replaced here with a spate of reasonably well-behaved, perfectly lovely lovey-dovey love songs that are, to her credit, just ever so slightly off. Exhibit A: "Fall in Love (Your Funeral)." Oh, yes. "You better go back the way you came/Wrong way/If you stay/Prepare to have yo' shit rearranged," Badu purrs, over an exquisitely mellow, Moog-centric lope evocative of her late-'90s Queen of Neo-Soul days. Thesis: "You ain't the worstest one I have done/But you'll do/Till he come." Chorus: "You don't wanna fall in love with me."
This is excellent advice that's tough to follow. "Window Seat," the most arresting mellow lope here, finds a romantically frustrated Badu skipping town but soon yearning for reunion: "Come back/Come back, baby" she moans, a heartrending echo of pre-all-porn-all-the-time Janet Jackson. "Gone Baby, Don't Be Long" takes that same smooth sonic template but stretches and deepens it, adding cool synths and a Wings sample Badu cleared by publicly hunting down Lenny Kravitz on Twitter because she knew he knew Paul McCartney. And "Turn Me Away (Get Munny)" is, come to think of it, pretty deranged, a menacingly girly bounce to its step via a bubblegum-smacking bassline as Badu chirps out a disquietingly precocious strings of la-la-la-la's. "Fingers crossed behind my back," she adds, not for the last time, amid her declarations of possibly financially based lust, introducing just a whiff of deception and menace to all this mushiness.
Otherwise, though, Ankh pads its 11 tracks with intriguing but slight filler: a 90-second jazz-funk piano sketch accurately titled "Agitation," a Madlib-produced harp interlude also accurately titled "Incense," and a demo-ish vamp called "You Loving Me," wherein Badu blithely freestyles—"You loving me/And I'm driving your Benz/You loving me/And I'm spendin' your ends/You loving me/And I'm drinking your gin/You loving me/And I'm fuckin' your friends"—before cracking herself up: "That's terrible, isn't it?" She laughs, you melt. But you still miss 4th World War's defiance and focus: The strangest, most analogous thing here is the 10-minute, multi-suite torch song "Out My Mind, Just in Time": "I'm a recovering undercover over-lover," she coos, before settling in for another round of slightly warped koans of devotion: "I'll pray for you/Crochet for you/Make it from scratch for you/Leave off the latch for you." Absolutely none of this is bad, per se, but Badu is better as the master than the servant, better at inspiring love, and fear, and confusion than succumbing passively to those mere mortal emotions herself.
Love, fear, and confusion are in ample supply Saturday night at Good Units, the swank basement club below the Hudson Hotel in Midtown, home to a "secret" Badu show by turns enraging and enrapturing. You need to see Erykah Badu live as soon as possible. It's ludicrous. Just prepare to wait awhile. After three opening acts (the last of which, Spank Rock, are straight-up booed offstage for doing the "Shake It 'til My Dick Turns Racist" song—sophisticated crowd!), there commences a 90-minute lull as we wait for our headliner to, you know, show up, the poor DJ tasked with distracting the crowd eventually pelted with boos himself. (At one point, someone makes the ill-advised decision to just put Ankh on over the PA; four tracks in, it is correctly theorized that a crowd booing the record that has occasioned this ostensible record-release party would be a bad look.) Meanwhile, Badu herself is actually Tweeting shit like "On 30th and Eighth." The mood sours, the crowd thins.
Finally, at 1:35 a.m., she deigns to appear, to cheers of not so much rapture as mere relief. But instantly, BOOM, we are transfixed, Badu just standing there, regal and beautiful and sinister, not one whiff of apology about her, with a tinge of surprise even, as if she'd come home to find us all standing in her living room. She struts nonchalantly to the mic, drawls through the negligible electric-piano Ankh opener "20 Feet Tall," and then proceeds to pretty much ignore her new record entirely, favoring lithe, mutated, menacing, full-band reboots of 4th World War tracks ("The Healer" kills, as always) butting heads with older, surlier stuff: "Danger," off 2003's Worldwide Underground, is a whirlwind of trunk-rattling malice, a battle hymn for a Glock-toting heroine with neither the time nor the inclination to crotchet for anybody. She tosses off a comparatively tame "Window Seat" as a quasi-encore, roundabouts 2:45, but otherwise leaves Ankh alone. Can't say I minded.