By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Before the early Saturday morning Internet release of the music video for "Window Seat," the first single off her new album, New Amerykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh, and before news outlets had created an almost laughable controversy over the clip that features her nude at John F. Kennedy's assassination spot in Dealey Plaza, proud Dallas daughter Erykah Badu, more than anything else, seems like she's comfortable with her place in life.
Makes sense. To pull off a stunt like she does in the "Window Seat" clip, she'd better be comfortable in her own, now-seen-by-the-whole-world skin.
"Thank you for noticing," she says with a bit of a giggle, speaking over the phone from the car that's transporting her throughout New York City from interview to interview as she relentlessly promotes her album's release and as she digests what she calls the best veggie burger she's ever eaten. "I do feel good right now. Thank you for recognizing that."
The reasons behind her contentment are plentiful. After a five-year period absent of new releases, 2008's New Amerykah Pt. 1: 4th World War earned Badu the kind of critical acclaim that most artists spend their whole careers seeking, thanks to the disc's winning, futuristic blend of hip-hop, soul, electronica and R&B, which won praise from both the R&B fans who made her a star and the oh-so-judgmental rock critics who generally avoid her genre. The just-released follow-up to that album, New Amerykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh, pegged as a stylistic throwback of sorts from the neo-soul-singer-turned-space-cowgirl, meanwhile, seems primed for the same kind of success, if only because fans and media types at this point can't seem to get enough of Badu's free spirit. Oh, and for good measure, the mother of three (who hardly looks it in the "Window Seat" clip) just recently celebrated the first birthday of her youngest child, Mars Merkaba, who holds the distinction of being the first baby whose birth was live-tweeted.
"I've been a Twitter-head for a minute," Badu says, again with a laugh. "I twit about everything."
Indeed she does. It's quite refreshing, actually, to take a glance at the feed of her @fatbellybella Twitter account, a sort of stream-of-consciousness ramble that finds the singer interacting freely with her fans in a loosely moderated discussion that focuses on everything from her music to her fans' poetry and their combined thoughts on society's directions.
Her Twitter feed can be random too—but that's just how Badu is. Like when, out of nowhere, halfway through this very interview, she screams "Wait a minute!" mid-sentence, because, yes, that kind of looks like...no wait, it is actor Ron Palillo, best known for his role as Arnold Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter, walking down the street next to her ride.
"That's Horshack!" she screams with glee. "That's Arnold Horshack! I just saw Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter! Just walking down the road! On Park and 34th!"
It's an especially exciting sight, Badu continues, because she's sung that show's theme onstage so many times. As she so often does online, she's rambling willy-nilly again.
But make no mistake: Despite all these asides, Badu's not absent-minded. Scatterbrained, maybe, but that's actually the concept behind her New Amerykah series in the first place.
"I did them all at the same time," she says. "I wrote all those songs at once. When I had the so-called writer's block—which really wasn't just writer's block but was just downloading and gathering—after that period, I began to flow like a waterfall, with words and lyrics and ideas. And not only musically, but in my love life and with my children and with teaching and creativity, with fashion—just everything. It started to flow at once."
But there was a clear division among these new creations. Some of the songs—like Part 1's anthemic hip-hop-as-religion track, "The Healer"—showed her more experimental, more deliberate side as an artist who refuses to be caged by genre classifications. Part 2's crop—surely a less edgy, but no less an impressive bunch—finds the artist taking pleasure in her life's current groove. Even its title, Return of the Ankh, refers to as much: The Ankh, Badu explains, is a specific callout to her debut and breakout 1997 release, Baduizm, and the fact that the Egyptian symbol was represented in that album's artwork.
But to say that New Amerykah, Pt. 2 is a throwback to the same style of that first album is just half the story. Sure, Badu's back in her comfort zone of neo-soul—a genre in which she's so successful that she's been deemed its Queen—and, yes, it's a bouncy, piano-heavy, funky and jazzy affair, highlighted by hip-hop-tinged efforts like "Turn Me Away (Get Munny)," "Umm Hmm" and the billowing "Window Seat," but, Badu maintains, the similarities are more evident in her mind-set than anything else.
"I feel that way again," she says. "It has nothing that has to do with the sound. It's always gonna sound like me. Baduizm is part of me. But how I feel is fearless. I have no expectations of myself. It's a beautiful feeling. I feel like I'm hungry, like I was before anything came out. I feel competitive. I feel beautiful. It's just the same feeling. And the Return of the Ankh is just a return to that part in my life."
It's showed even in her productivity: With each of her previous albums, the label had to take the album from Badu; this time, she was able to make the deadline and give the songs to the bigwigs before they asked—with a couple hours to spare, even.
And maybe that's why this second installment of New Amerykah, if nothing else, feels more cohesive than the first, confidently riding the down-tempo flavor of "Window Seat" to a breezy, thought-provoking end. Not unlike that song's video, in fact.
"It's therapy for me, what I do," she says, sounding prescient, as if she's discussing the video that, at the time of this interview, few outside of Badu's inner circle had ever seen. "And I don't feel responsible for the world in any kind of way when it comes to music."
In retrospect, it's scary how much her words seem to specifically reference the ordeal that the "Window Seat" video would soon create.
"I just have to be honest," she continues. "And the more honest I am, the more inspiring it is. I know what the fuck I'm doing."