Erykah Badu’s latest is supposed to be a sequel. The connection to its predecessor is not obvious.
Released in 2008, its abstruse counterpart deserves the swarms of analysis it’s amounted. Part One’s political drone was frighteningly dark yet prophetically straight. It permeated everything. The tracks were angry or sarcastically bitter. The between-song skits were vigorous and triggering. Its mash of sound (soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop) was more than just genre-mixing—she made something thoroughly “black.” The truth in it was aggressive, and still not realized. There’s a lot of mind work involved.
But this new release takes a near opposite approach. She’s talking about herself, her feelings and her personal relationships without directly referencing the world at large. While that would seem to suggest a more accessible release (the radio doesn’t like revolution), this record is quite raw. That is, many of these tracks are either overly condense (sometimes just “outtakes”) or overly prolonged.
The slow-moving first track, “20 Feet Tall,” prepares you for her sonic subtleties. There’s plenty of stray electronic whirls and atmosphere. She even tinkers with volume dynamics on “Umm Hmm.” There’s a kind of sci-fi naturalism to these techniques. This is important, since she’s trying to show her real-ness in a world she deemed crazy last record.
She understands something about honest vulnerability.
She’s asks, “Can I get a window seat? Don’t want nobody next to me. I just want a ticket outta town, a look around.” It seems an odd lyric after lambasting anti-social complacency on her previous record. But her reasons become clearer. “I need you to miss me. /Need somebody come get me.” They seem like simple expressions. Linguistically, they are. But they arrive in a larger context—as she said in 2008, “I’m a human being, d*** it. My life has value” (“Twinkle”). She wants to feel that as a citizen, but also in her individual endeavors.
The music video conveys the same need: movement into human-ness and self-worth. In it, she can be seen innocently removing her clothes as she walks around the site of JFK’s assassination. The cameos—uninformed civilians—are appalled (as was the Dallas police; she was charged a misdemeanor). And that’s what she’s trying to say: the world is horrified by bare existence. In interviews, she’s said that the video is a protest against groupthink. “John F. Kennedy was a revolutionary; he was not afraid to butt heads with America, and I was not afraid to show America my butt-naked truth.” Being a renegade can be as simple as being an individual.
Other music writers have had a hard time viewing this as an extension of what she did two years ago. I’ll admit, the connection is elusive, and you may not want to try, as this album seems considerably inferior to the prior release. On the other hand, she has a history of growing on her listeners. Just like the truth.