There aren't too many avenues artists can go down after producing something that borders on a master work. They can try to top it, though this seldom works, and more often than not makes the follow up feel even more disappointing than it might have in the first place. Another option is to accept the peak, but rather than opt to go out on a high note, simply take a step sideways and try something different. The jaw dropping New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) put Soulquarian Erykah Badu in such a predicament. It was easily the soul album of 2008, with huge doses of pretty much everything great: Amazing lyrics, fantastic, eclectic beats, and of course Badu herself sounded excellent, as always. But what to do next? How was she going to follow that up? The same way that she followed up her brilliant, neo-soul pionering debut Baduizm - taking a step sideways and trying something different.
Musically speaking, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) has a slightly similar approach to its predecessor, particularly in the eclecticism of its beats. The chief difference, really, is the overall tone. Maybe it's the satisfaction of having produced another stone cold classic, but Badu sounds far more content here than on (especially) Amerykah Part One. Firstly, the politically charged spirit is gone, replaced with more musings on romance and love in general. The sweet Gone Baby, Don't Be Long beautifully captures that first parting moment with a new lover with lines like "I feel like a girl with the faintest crush" and "I can't wait to see what you do, it's not too much to follow you through." Even the frustration in the brilliant single Window Seat comes across as gentle, much like its equally brilliant and controversial music video, which incidentally multiplied my respect for her tenfold.
In some places she just sounds like she's having a great time, and there's a bit of joking throughout as well. Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY) playfully references Junior M.A.F.I.A.'s 90's hit, Get Money, and there's also its charming intro, with Badu herself asking "What's the matter, is he drunk? ....yeah, he's drunk." It ends with quick banter among the musicians, something else that would have been vastly out of place on Amerykah Part One, particularly next to the helpless helium voices and furious Peter Finch Network recitation. There's humor to be found in the tracks themselves, as well. She sounds so coy when she sings "It's gonna be some slow singing and flower bringing, if my burglar alarm starts..." on Fall in Love (Your Funeral) that you can't help but smile back at her. There's also the line "You're loving me, and I'm fucking your friend," on the jazzy You Loving Me (Session) interlude, which is followed by a chuckling "that's terrible, isn't it.."
New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) isn't as immediate or powerful as the first. It needs a while to grow through multiple listens, but it blooms wonderfully. It's a more personal record, but much less intense, and with the same great music, lyrics, and vocals we've come to expect from Badu. It doesn't quite reach the heights that her last did, but that's hardly a criticism. New Amerykah Part Two is a great album by any measure - soulful, inviting, and easy to love; as good a way to follow up a masterpiece as any.