After 2008's tight, blunt New Amerykah, Part One (4th World War), singer-songwriter Erykah Badu's latest record feels like a deep breath.
New Amerykah Part II (Return of the Ankh) establishes a syrupy simmer early on with tracks like the sweetly psychedelic 20 Feet Tall and lead single Window Seat, which provides the key to understanding the entire album: "Tell me what you want from me/Concluding/Concentrating on my music, lover, and my babies," Badu sings to an overeager paramour, fairly summing up the past few years of her life.
The personal frequently trumps the political throughout New Amerykah Part II, which finds the Dallas native reaching back to the sounds of her earlier works, like 1997's Baduizm.
It's an album that also balances straight-ahead soul with left-field flourishes and smartly incorporates samples (including a snippet of Wings' Arrow Through Me, which Badu famously cleared last-minute via Twitter). The wonderfully loopy aspects of Badu's style -- free-associative lyrics, Space Age sounds blended with retro elements, funky and innovative beats (the late J. Dilla contributes to the too-brief Love) -- mesh without feeling forced.
Indeed, New Amerykah Part II feels of a piece with its predecessor, even if it takes a few more listens to work into Part II's particular groove. Part II is much looser; look no further than You Loving Me, a song that feels like a half-finished take, barely breaking the one-minute mark and ending with Badu amusingly criticizing her own lyrics. Then there's the 10-minute album closer Out My Mind, Just in Time, which floats between a trio of movements; it's like hovering near the edge of the galaxy, drifting among stars.
P art One benefited from an immediacy and energy absent here; taken together, however, as Badu likely intended, the whole package works as a wildly diverse yet improbably coherent double album. And as with Part One, one of this record's best tracks -- the Lil Wayne-guested Jump Up in the Air (Stay There) isn't widely available; you'll have to buy via iTunes to acquire it -- is sadly missing.
It's impossible to predict where the multifaceted Badu goes from here, although it would be surprising if she rushes to begin another project. Considered as a whole, the New Amerykah diptych is one of the strongest projects of her career, suggesting, if nothing else, that this neo-soul queen is merely getting warmed up.
Download this: Gone Baby, Don't Be Long
Preston Jones is the Star-Telegram pop music critic, 817-390-7713