Erykah Badu: Soul Diva Scales Back

Music Features Erykah Badu
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Erykah Badu lets her muse come by degrees. She works patiently, like a monk or a sculptor or a…sandwich artist? “It’s like Subway sandwiches,” she says. “All the bread first, then all the lettuce, all the tomatoes. Nothing’s finished until everything’s there. It takes a lot of time to do the things that I do. I give myself that time.”

Five years passed between Badu’s 2003 record Worldwide Underground and 2008’s blindsiding New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), one of the most ambitious albums in recent memory. Its woolly arrangements and subject matter made for Badu’s most overtly political and socially minded disc, and startled even longtime fans. Now, at relatively blinding speed, we get the final New Amerykah installment, Part Two (Return of the Ankh), a project closer to her 1997 debut, Baduizm. The new set features torch singing and heavy arrangements that lean on piano and bass, but it also takes some of the sharp left turns that defined its predecessor. Part Two is the yang to Part One’s yin.

The first disc reveled in heavy processing, and the second is hardly all-the-way-live (note the disorienting bass drops on three-part finale “Out My Mind Just in Time,” and the 3D sample trickery of the Karriem Riggins-produced “Fall in Love”). Nevertheless, the new one is, as Badu puts it, “very analog. After I recorded digitally and dumped everything back onto two-inch tape, it made me think of some of the older things that moved me in that kind of way.” One lingering element is the subtle use of theremin, which wends into the background of a number of songs, thickening the album’s 1970s flavor. “I tend to want to tell a story sonically,” Badu says, “as much as I do lyrically.”

For both New Amerykah projects, she recorded a huge batch of songs and then sorted them on her laptop, sifting through some 70 demos recorded to GarageBand. “Some of them were not finished vocally, but it all had to feel alike. I was in a very sociopolitical place at some points in the writing, and a very emotional, energetic, romantic point in some parts of the writing. I was beginning to separate them—stems from seed, if you will,” says the Dallas-based singer, who turned 39 last month. “It took more time listening than actually composing. I was having to interpret the mumbling I was doing—‘What am I trying to say? What am I trying to do?’ It’s almost like another artist or another person I’m trying to figure out.”

In some cases, that other person takes on a life of her own, as on “Get Money,” a lampoon of hip-hop and R&B’s crass materialism (“I’m drinking your gin / I’m fucking your friends”) that came out of a studio jam session. “It’s funny to me because that’s so anti what I feel or think,” Badu says. The jazzy soul of “Window Seat” is a semi throwback featuring a lyrical nod to a fellow Texas native: “On this porch rockin’ / Like Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

“Lightnin’ Hopkins sits on the porch and sings blues, for the most part,” Badu says. “I’m singing these blues, but I’d rather be beamed up by Scotty.”

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