Inside of Chung King Studios in New York City, the lights are dimmed in what’s presumably the recording room where artists like D’Angelo, Jimi Hendrix and the Notorious B.I.G. have laid down some of their greatest material. After journalists, bloggers and media folk hit the bar and grab a few vegan snacks from a vegetable-laden spread, they pack into the quaint space and take their seats on floor pillows strewn about the rug. Once everyone gets settled and makes some small talk for a half-hour (label reps snagged cell phones for the listening after one website recorded a track from the album that featured Lil Wayne and leaked it the previous evening), in walks Ms. Erykah Badu, decked out in a furry cap, a down jacket whose top was shaped like a normal winter coat and bottom flared out like a skirt, skin-hugging vinyl black tights and eggplant-colored pumps that put her feet in an almost horizontal arch.
Little did the room know that Ms. Badu was about to earn her spot as one of the premier artists to record and debut some of her best work in the legendary space. Ms. Badu introduced her forthcoming album New Amerykah, Part II: Return of the Ankh, the companion piece to 2008’s murky, politically-charged mind-melter New Amerykah, Part I: 4th World War. Perching on a stool at the front of the room, Ms. Badu explained that the first album was more a product of her left brain, the “socio-political side,” with the pair of albums resulting from the 76 songs she had written for the project.
“Sonically, harmonically, lyrically, I split them into two things,” she said in her soft, knowing tone. “The first was very digital, very barcoded. With Part II, the songs leftover from the pile belonged together as well.” After encouraging the people in the room to listen with their “human ears” (”It’s like my daughter being put on an auction block with grease all over it,” she said of her music being criticized), Ms. Badu headed to the control room to be with her daughter Mars as the lights dimmed and the album began.
And what an album it is. With much more levity than Part I, Part II is even more eclectic and musically daring than the first, with tracks that gleam with gushy drums and soul-squeezing instrumentation, all pieced together, of course, with her incomparable vocals. With production from 9th Wonder, Shafiq Husayn, James Poyser, Karriem Riggins, J. Dilla, Madlib, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Ms. Badu herself, the album was played in its entirety before Badu took a seat and fielded some questions. Showing Out was there to take notes at the listening session, so hit the jump to get a track-by-track breakdown before the album hits stores on February 23, 2010.
20 Feet Tall (produced by 9th Wonder)
The album kicks off with the atonal fuzz found all over Part I, only this time it slips into an off-kilter, warbly duet with keys and vocals that float atop the instrumentation. “You built a wall 20 feet tall / But if I get off my knees / I might recall I’m 20 feet tall,” she sings. The track ends with children screaming.
Window Seat (produced by Erykah Badu and James Poyser)
“Window Seat” kicks up the pace into a thick, rich drum groove, paralleling the best of early neo-soul Erykah with its chalky bongo hits and sultry vocals. On the track, she sings, “But I need you to want me / And I need you to miss me / I need your attention / I need you next to me / I need someone to clap for me” before defiantly cooing on the chorus, “Can I get a window seat? / Don’t want nobody next to me.” The track ends with a sudden psychedelic smear of noise.
Agitation (produced by Shafiq Husayn)
With its fleshy bass line, this short tune throws some jazzy spice into the mix, with pulsating rhythm drums and a jazz piano line that plays the background to Badu chanting, “What a day.” The track abruptly cuts out.
Get Money (produced by Erykah Badu, James Poyser, Karriem Riggins and Thundercat)
Hip-hop purists will appreciate the blatant nod to Biggie and Junior M.A.F.I.A., as Erykah gives her own spin on the classic “Get Money” by flipping it into a warm, tantalizing soul groove. Over live instrumentation, Badu sings on the chorus, “Can’t turn me away / I believe in your heart / I always want to stay.” In the background, she casually sasses, “Get money!” Throughout the track, you expect her to just bust into a rhyme, but after riding out for a good couple of minutes, the track ends with a literal round of applause. Oh, and somewhere in there, Badu promises her man, “I’ll be your robot girl.
Don’t Be Long (produced by Ta’Raach)
Before this one kicks in, Badu says on the track, “Do you have the number for the other bass player?” before reading some futuristic phone number that has too many digits to be legit. Soon, “Don’t Be Long” begins, coasting on the thickest groove yet. With a sizzling bass line, the head-knocking groove gently cruises on an electric guitar rhythm, with Badu singing, “Go baby, go baby / Go be gone, I know you’ve got to get your hustle on.” The track, produced by Ta’Raach (Badu explained that he’s straight from the Sa-Ra camp), ends in an atonal mess of notes and a robotic, distorted speaking voice of a woman.
Love (produced by J. Dilla)
This short track is over in almost the blink of an eye, but it leaves an indelible mark on the listener. With a splotchy, fat drum beat, “Love” features a rusty guitar melody with Erykah accenting the beat with poignant vocals. Too short for such a kicking joint, but memorable.
Umm Hmm (produced by Madlib)
This one features a sped-up vocal sample and is crowded, playing like a vintage record straight from the crates. “You can’t hide / Calm down baby let me go / I love how you make me feel,” she sings.
Fall in Love (produced by Karriem Riggins)
“Fall in Love” might as well boast a production credit from Dilla, because it takes many cues from his style. The smooth backpacker-catering joint rests on stabbing electronic Moog noises and subtle, liquid butter keys buried deep in the mix. “Slow singin’ and flower bringin’ / If my burglar alarm starts ringin’,” she sings, paying homage to the late, great Biggie Smalls for a second time. “It’s hard for him to not be in the fabric of my shit,” she later explained about why she had two references to the Notorious B.I.G. on the album. “Maybe I can ask Puff to let me have a verse,” she joked.
Incense (produced by Madlib)
This strictly instrumental track surprisingly fits right in with the rest of the album. Beginning with a static hum, “Incense” features a fluttering harp (recorded live in the studio) that plays in dynamic arpeggios before the groove locks into place. Soon, the harp readjusts to the new groove and a vibrating bass chimes in. Real soulful.
Out My Mind Just in Time (Part 1) (Undercover Over-Lover) (produced by James Poyser)
Ms. Badu explained that this track is actually in three parts, stating that it was the “Green Eyes” of the album. “Part 1″ of this track is Erykah at her most poignant. You can almost picture her singing in a smoky jazz bar as the track plays, with just a creamy piano accompaniment to her billowing vocals holding together the tune. “I’m a recovering undercover over-lover / Recovering from a love I can’t get over / Recovering undercover over-lover / And now my common law lover thinks he wants another,” she sings. Ms. Badu even moans, “I’d chop and screw for you,” with the vocal actually sounding chopped and screwed. The subtlety undeniably plays to her favor.
Out My Mind Just in Time (Part 2) (produced by Georgia Anne Muldrow)
The last track on the album was originally a Georgia Anne Muldrow song, Ms. Badu said, kind of like how Mos Def did the same thing with Muldrow’s “Roses” for his The Ecstatic album. Playing like a more fleshed out version of “Part 1,” the track features her singing, “Could this be love? / From high no frontier / Who is this guy / You are so wise / I’m so gone / By summertime, you’d had it all / Build a wall ten feet tall / Now I laugh at it all.” The track ends with her moaning, “Out of my mind, just in time” before the album cuts off and a group of children scream, “Yay!” An optimistic ending for a beautiful collection of tracks.
Badu finished by stating that the third album in the New Amerykah series would be titled Lowdown, Low Underground and would be sung in the persona of her alias Loretta Brown, a woman that’s “from the ’50s but acts like she’s from the ’40s – the 2040’s.”
New Amerykah, Part II: Return of the Ankh – available February 23 2010