The ambiance at Manhattan's legendary Chung King Studios Wednesday night (Dec. 9) was vintage Erykah Badu: black floor pillows, scented candles, dark lighting that induced a trippy, laidback mood. It was an intriguing setting for the 38-year-old Dallas, Texas native who was in a light-hearted and at times candid mood during a listening session for her upcoming release New Amerykah, Part II (Return of the Ankh), due out Feb. 23, 2010.
As the album title suggests, Badu has taken inspiration from her classic 1997 debut Baduizm, a time when the head-wrapped, incense-waving vocalist was first critically hailed as the queen of neo soul, the burgeoning jazz-influenced, stripped-to-the-bone R&B genre that included D'Angelo, Maxwell and Jill Scott among its star headliners. But while subsequent projects found the singer distancing herself from what she saw as the musical constraints of neo soul (From the funked-out jam session vibe of 2000's Mama's Gun to 2008's politically-charged avant garde New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War), the occasionally organic live feel of New Amerykah Part II finds Badu giving an introspective nod to her past.
"I feel how I felt when I released Baduizm," said the always-eccentric performer, wearing a Flashdance-era gray sweatshirt, yellow jogging pants, blue leggings and silver slippers. Over a mix of live piano, jazz guitars, dusty soul samples, driving acoustic bass, live drums, and J-Dilla-esque hip-hop sound-clashes, Badu delivers an album that offers the emotional highs, lows and maddening complexities of being involved in a romantic relationship. The project, which features contributions from The Roots drummer ?uestlove, producers Madlib and Sa-Ra, keyboardist James Poyser, 9th Wonder and late influential hip hop producer J Dilla, may be as musically accessible as Erykah Badu can get.
"This is my therapy,' she continues of the album's more personal tone. "New Amerykah Pt. 1 [had a more] digital feel. This time I wanted to have more live instruments. I like how my voice sounds when I'm singing with a piano. I'm glad I don't have to use Auto-Tune. My voice is my gift." Badu then muses, "But if I had to use [Auto-Tune], I would."
Highlights on New Amerykah, Part II (Return of the Ankh) include:
☥ "20 Feet Tall"
Features Badu's stark vocals over a floating keyboard riff that can be described as a jazzier nod to Radiohead's "Everything in it's Right Place" (2000).
☥ "Window Seat"
"I need your attention...I need you to miss me," she pleads to a lover on the throwback soul groove that's driven by a live jazz bassline (a theme throughout New Amerykah Pt. II) that could have been plucked straight off Baduizm.
☥ "Get Money"
Samples the Notorious B.I.G.-led Junior Mafia classic "Get Money." A playful Badu takes on the role of a female player who is all about the green, delivering real talk lines like, "I look like a model...I want your money."
☥ "Fall In Love"
A heartfelt, mid tempo slow jam that uses a chilling J Dilla-blessed Eddie Kendricks sample. Has single potential.
Breathtaking instrumental that sounds like it was produced under water. Yes, that's a harp you are hearing. "It felt like a hug," Badu says of the stunning track.
☥ "Out My Mind Just in Time (Part 1) (Undercover Over-Lover)/Out My Mind Just in Time (Part 2)"
Badu calls this her second three-song suite ("You'll have to wait to hear [Part 3] when the album comes out," she says), much in the same conceptual vein featured on Mama's Gun. "Part 1" finds Badu accompanied by a stirring torch song piano pleading, "I'll lie for you, cry for you...yes I'm a fool for you..." "Part 2" is the sound of madness following heartbreak. Over a disjointed jazz-tinged groove Badu gives a haunting, schizophrenic performance.
☥ "Jump In The Air" (feat. Lil Wayne)
One of 10 versions of a leaked track that will feature 10 MC's (the cut will not be featured on New Amerykah Pt. II). While the hard-charging beat is somewhat aggressive, the message of keeping an optimistic attitude in life is bolstered by the much-rumored (and lively) performance of Lil' Wayne. "There are a few surprise MC's that you will hear," Badu says. "I don't want to give it away just yet." --Keith Murphy