By Clarence Haynes
Erykah Badu added her distinctive voice to the “Culture Wars” over the weekend with the strategic premiere of her “Window Seat” video. The song, which is about taking space and time for oneself when love gets you down, is now eclipsed by images of Badu walking through the downtown area of her native Dallas, removing articles of clothing until she’s naked, only to be shot in the head by an unseen assailant. Blue blood flows to form the words “group think” and Badu as narrator comes on to speak of mob mentalities and the cowardly attacks made on those who choose to be individuals and live freely.
The video – done guerrilla style as Badu has tweeted that they shot the footage and ran to escape potential arrest – pays homage to a number of cultural moments, most notably the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The clip takes place in the same area of the historical killing and starts off with news footage announcing Kennedy’s motorcade. It’s also inspired by pop-punk duo Matt and Kim’s video for “Lesson Learned,” where they strip in New York’s Time Square. And, of course, it speaks of our current political climate, where conservative communities make death threats against the nation’s first black president.
Amidst the clip’s sociopolitical swirl, Badu’s latest album New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh places far more of an emphasis on romance and relationships than its predecessor Part One: 4th World War. Ankh sandwiches foot-thumping grooves (“Turn Me Away (Get MUNNY),” “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long,” “Love,” etc.) between introspective, jazz-inspired cuts.
Yet Badu still plays with the political and spiritual outside of the “Window” video. Album opener “20 Feet Tall” is about self-empowerment, with the singer reminding herself of her grand capabilities. Lead website-based song “Jump Up in the Air” bombastically says we must reach for the heavens. A message on fear and love frequencies is found at the middle of the album.
It’s a complex web of womanhood, where an artist can freely play with weirdness, controversy and personas that sometimes conflict with each other to bring forth a whole self. The calming “Window Seat” is followed immediately by the interlude “Agitation,” where she’s anxious and angry. The centerpiece of the collection, “Umm Hmm,” is simple sexy sultriness for tingling bodies, while “Fall in Love (Your Funeral),” notes that any potential boos have to “change jobs, change gods” or else leave lest they risk being taken out. And the funny interlude “You Loving Me” spotlights Badu (or at least a character) indulging in utmost trifling behavior.
Badu’s humor and sly wordplay is another cornerstone of Ankh, with eye-winks made at both the dude(s) she’s dating and herself. And even with the more serious pieces, the wit reigns. “I’m a recovering undercover overlover, recovering from a love I can’t get over,” she sings on “Out My Mind, Just in Time.” The three-movement experimental jazz/soul/electronica fusion is lyrically inspired by Suheir Hammad’s poem “What I Will” and is similar in form to Mama’s Gun’s “Green Eyes.” It’s another empowerment tale, where after wailing about the pain of a not-right relationship, Badu takes a stand and takes responsibility for her own happiness, proclaiming “Finally, I got a leading role.”