It was only in the last few years that I started to really get into Erykah Badu, but from what I can tell, it’s been a weird decade for her. She started the decade off strong, releasing this follow up to 2008’s New Amerykah Pt. 1, but then for the rest of the decade managed only to release a mixtape in 2015, while a new album may await us in 2020. However, she still managed to retain her relevancy through extensive touring and festival appearances, while the kind of laid-back neo-soul she once harbored into the mainstream managed to stay in fashion over the course of the 2010s. She also managed to stay in the limelight (unfortunately) because she defended all-around great guys like Hitler and R. Kelly in public, but I guess it’s hard to give too much credence to any of Badu’s weird personal opinions when she’s always seemed to be living on a planet all her own.
It’s a bit odd that New Amerykah Pt. 1 & 2 are supposed to be taken as two halves of the same work, because they stand in particular contrast to each other. Though maybe that was just Erykah Badu’s way of showing that there are two sides to her sound. Also, it seems that both albums came out of the same burst of inspiration that Badu experienced in the mid-00s after Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson bought her a laptop to record on. New Amerykah Pt. 1 was a noticeably political, socially conscious album, which perhaps felt a bit out of place in 2008 when the perceptions of Black America were seemingly changing for the better. Though its political themes hold up quite nicely know, as Badu famously on the track “Master Teacher” begged the listener to “stay woke” while that phrase became a cultural linchpin into the latter half of the 2010s.
New Amerykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh, however, is a much more soulful, sensuous affair. Gone are the more experimental, hip-hop-inspired sounds of Pt. 1, as it’s a decidedly live-sounding album, full of heavy grooves and plenty of memorable hooks and layered vocals reminiscent of ’70s soul. Meanwhile, the lyrical themes on this album are much more about relationships and the kind of primal attraction that can only come out of a stone-cold R&B groove. It makes for an album that was probably taken a bit for granted when it was released in 2010, since it marked a decidedly less “serious” sound than Amerykah Pt. 1, while Badu had settled into a groove of releasing an album every few years. 10 years later, that’s not nearly the case, and just adds to the album’s undeniable pleasures.