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Black Sky Thinking

Twenty Thoughts About Love & Erykah Badu's New Amerykah Part Two
Neil Kulkarni , April 23rd, 2010 05:14

Neil Kulkarni gets to grips with Erykah Badu's new long player. Photo by Jay Electronica

ONE. I’ve put our uniforms in the wash. We’ve got a few hours to get ready. Aww love. I hope you get banished from pop soon. You're in a bad way. Fatally estranged from your soulmate Death, starved of the real Romance that negotiates that crucial relationship, that way you cheat each other, the way you each make us forget about the other one. ‘This Ain't A Love Song’? Too fucking right. You cunts couldn't write a love song. It's too serious for you.

TWO. Love, Jesus, look at you, you're starving, you're not looking good. Wasting away. Every song is about you. Bieber to Derulo, Perry to Cole to Allen. All this exposure with no-one actually asking how you are. Have you seen Romance recently? What an idiot. Such slush in your name, so at odds with the way our lovers make us feel. Anyone who had a heart doesn't watch new movies. Skinny kids getting sappy on each other. We watch only studio system b&ws, only movies in which grown-ups, who have suffered, find love and lose their minds. People who know about permanence and transience. People who know how love burns what flimsy handles you had on yourself, who have grown up to find out how love bereaves you. How you wave goodbye to your freedom, send your sanity trundling down the curtained conveyor-belt to the flames, tip the ashes of your control on the grave of your ability to think straight. You grow up you find out how love addicts you, inhabits you, makes you wait on it because you need it, makes you hang out a window for hours staring at a corner waiting for a face, a cab, a sign. You find how, when the clock ticks beyond a promise, time stretches infinitely into your guts. You taste the sweet searing martyrdom of a bit lip, the quinine-hit of poison on an unleashed tongue. Love makes all its clichés true and bigger than life. ‘My Life Would Suck Without You’ will never become a cliché. It's too untrue.

THREE. But that kind of love, like



wouldn't fly anymore. Love lyrics have switched angles from the frenzied p.o.v of the problem-page correspondent to the endlessly prescriptive, dully didactic cheese shot out by the agony aunt/uncle. Where once pop poets were able to sum up young crush and old need , now gaucheness and wisdom have been voted out by the cynicism and smugness of middle-aged songwriters & mentors putting their relationship-advice diagnoses into the mouths of middle-aged teenagers. A massive overabundance of 'wit' masking an actual fear of language until everyone speaks & sings in the same dull poesy & shrunken verbals of those advice columns, those cover-mounted confessions. Lyrics that read like status updates. Have you heard that Kate Nash single? “Everybody thinks that girl’s so fine/Everybody’s like I’ll make her mine. Everyone thinks she’s a bit of alright/But I think that she’s not so nice”. Jesus, am I the only one who just felt it get fucking stupider in here?

FOUR. So, no new clichés for a while now. Plenty of topicality, linguistic gimmickry, sharpness, fashion. No style, no real talk, no timelessness. Lies, generalities and gossip , but no truth, about love. Too much judgement and smart-arsedness, as if love isn't way too complicated to merely write through, think through, sing yourself better with. Like bereavement it will put potholes in the pavement for your dumbass facade & give you a reason to tumble down. But most pop about love is now about preparation, redemption, making sure you come out on top, paid, self-pity intact, moving on. Makeover music, self-help music, in pop 2010 there's plenty of knowledge of how emotion looks and can be described, and a total lack of any emotion.

FIVE. And it's killing it. Real unreal love and real unreal romance are forced into hiding under the floorboards, appalled at what's being committed in their names within these rooms and soundstages and vocal booths. In an era in which ostensibly the details and derailments of modern love have never been more piled high by more saps with nothing else to sing about, why are we getting so much assurance that things work out, that time will tell & pay all debts, when in actual fact love, like bereavement, NEVER leaves, never gets evened out or dealt with. In the charts, no matter how infantile the lungs knocking it out, it's always from the charmless viewpoint of someone who knows better now, someone who can diagnose and prescribe the emotional turmoil they were in and get healed. Nothing about modern pop lingers, makes you think, stops clocks. It rinses and leaves.

SIX. Sure this is a two-way relationship. Pop music affects the way we conduct our relationships. The deeper problem maybe is that the full-to-busting emptiness of modern love song perfectly reflects our new glass identities, our dizzy disappearance into the virtual life. I say stay away Love, stay between the walls, I know you're sick of being toyed with by the merely horny, sick of being mistaken for a daily fact, bought out by Miramax, pimped by Sony, turned out by MTV, lost to the truly beautiful & derelicted by youth. They use you to avoid talking about anything else, to avoid alienating anyone. I suspect an age in which all that's written are love songs is an age where people & the biz they work for are trying to shut out the scary shit, minimise risk. But love can be some scary shit… but these days, never in songs.

SEVEN. Which is hugely condescending when you think about the talk you hear round the shops, down the park, on the street, at the bus-stop, in the pub, in the club, at the cab rank, over the garden-fence, through the walls via a glass, wherever lovers can hide, or hide their mad connection with each other. The way people actually talk is still occasionally unique and often revelatory, but they are talked about by pop in ways that always stink of daytime-telly psychology and rom-com over-wordiness, lyrics that attempt observation but only see the average, push what the pie charts are saying plays well with the most suckers. Everyone says what they want/mean, everything resolves, enacting the same self-important Western fictions your Kyles and Povitches and Loose Women rely upon (that pop-psyche can solve the insoluble, that somehow making a relationship work is about 'growing up', being a 'strong' man/woman, that horrific notion of 'compatibility'). It is exhortative, preachy, pushy, whiney – it wears its immoderate nature on its sleeve, never reveals it by accident between the lines. Eavesdrop on 'normal' folk anywhere and you realise - though the tedious txt-spk twaddle of modern love songs matches the tedium of modern love as portrayed back to us - that ALL of it fails to match the way love is, and continues to be, and endures.

EIGHT. The true intractability of you and your lover, the way you finish each other, the way your despair and joy are intimately linked with that lost freedom you want for yourself but loathe in him/her, the way that lovers grind against each other in every way, shooting sparks, wearing each other down up to a point where you will never ever get over them for as long as you live – these are complex tectonic processes that don't feel like they take place in heart, head or even groin. Some other place, some elemental mix of every other emotion fused not in a single part of the body but that thrums on a deeper subcutaneous level, bacterial-like, a network of spores, an illness of sorts. Love should come with a warning, should require a license. So many modern love songs muzzle love's growl, hide love's howl, cure its palsy - cheap chat-up lines, new-man confessionals, and no real sweet talk. I'm a little bit lost without you. I'm a bloody big mess inside. Fuck off then you blubbering cunt. Michael MacIntyre, Ricky Gervais. Front and centre for the guillotine. You're both partly responsible.

NINE. Of course real romance, real love & life is never gonna be touched on when all must be spray-on, skin-deep: lyrically, modern love-songs are a post-modern grab-bag of buzzwordy bitesize bollocks in a zesty ranch dressing, sub-sexting neediness/nastiness that isn't equipped and doesn't have the attention span to deal with love's depths, is too busy in the giggling glee of matchmaking/voyeurism to notice the cold fires, the seething furies, the frenzies, too busy whining to really address the doom and desperation and depth of love's import in an age of dwindling dreams. The songs of love of the past ten years haven't been up to the job, will never become their own clichés but only rejig already dried-out ones, a pastiche-move often mirrored in the music's restorationist bent towards the 60s or 50s. Songs that have been written for the simpering saps on the match-dot-com ads but not the lovers on the street and on the roof and in the rooms tearing chunks out of each other, arming themselves against the rot within and without, scared of death, reaching out for the immortality of joy and completion and her arm or his shoulders. And there's not enough good singers to sing what good songs there are. Big problems for pop, if it wants to speak to people who are good at fucking as opposed to good at wanking, if it wants to win love back and stop getting told what to do by everyone else.

TEN. Erykah Badu is not a teenager, names her album after the Egyptian hieroglyph for 'eternal life', sees it as the other side of the more avowedly socio-political firestorms of New Amerykah Pt 1: 4th World War, has just had a kid with Jay Electronica, and is a little too good for the kids, just like all the best kids and grown-ups these days.

ELEVEN. Which is not to say that New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh isn't laden with hooks, isn't sweet as it is sour, sumptuous as it is seething. It's just that for such an enjoyable record, Ankh needs your time to fully work on you. Badu gives you a total picture of herself in & out of love and it grows, it builds, it edges it's way sideways into your consciousness and then pulls on you like those once-a-decade opium binges you can't give up on. Rare grooves indeed.

TWELVE. Don't allow your natural suspicion/doubt of those who venerate Badu deny you the wonder of her works: just because way too many backpackin'critics get gusset-froth from Badu & her loosely-affiliated Soulquarian posse, hold them up as some kind of venerable old-skool antidote to the treacheries of their mainstream contemporaries, doesn't mean that you have to dig them for the same weaselly reasons. Listening to Ankh, Badu's 'marginalisation' from the US rap mainstream (although 359,000 sales for 4th World War is still a margin a lot of people would love to reside in) seems less important than her steady estrangement from the rest of US music full-stop. Badu’s albums since 97 /have gone triple platinum, double platinum, platinum & gold in that order – she and you shouldn’t give a fuck about that thinning out of her appeal because it has meant increased concentration, increased oddity, increased determination. The generosity and lack of fear of her music (this album is freewheeling, contains fuck-ups other artists would kill for and is still perfect) makes it current and ancient, performance and role and persona fused in Badu so she falls into an elder lineage by dint of dreaming herself there, being that good, not by just saying so or sounding how you might 'expect'. Those crits usually get the names wrong. They say Donny Hath & Roberta & Stevie & Aretha & Lady Day. I say Earth, Wind And Fire. And Joni, and Steely Dan because what's bracing about Badu is her full-tilt addiction to melody, restraint and jazzed-out possibility for pop songwriting. I play this end to end with 'Hissing Of Summer Lawns' and 'That's The Way Of The World' and it balances, like a 12” on your little finger.

THIRTEEN. Crucially she's made a record here that doesn't use love or romance to shore up or reassure or push an ego, rather it's the giddy rush of love-talk, could be from him could be from her, the sudden defiances, the doomed declarations of independence that get swirled in. No accident that it's Badu's voice rather than the band that get fucked around with in the mix. Sonically this is less trippy but more hypnotic than its prequel – the accent on live instrumentation makes the grooves warmer & sweetens Badu's voice, and the voice, way more than the band, is prone to all kinds of chaos and chiaroscuro, doubling, tripling, swinging out to the margins and looping elliptically back to the centre of your headspace, riding into phase sunsets. By infinitely disappearing into their own traces and trails her multiple voices can be everyone at once. This wonderful smudginess/sharpness of identity makes Ankh a record that gratifyingly refuses to make Badu likeable, a winner, a caricature. Rather than use love as mere subject matter Badu has set out to make a record lovers can use, the unrequited can trip out on, we can all feel warming us like the sun. It feels wonderfully endless. Badu is smart enough not to try and have the final word – like the grooves and the lethal lyrical lines the album flows back on itself, concepts link back and forth, arguments get reignited. Like a real relationship this record can both create bliss and throw punches, is compassionate enough to be as real and unreal as love can be. We've all been there, and this record takes you back to those other dimensions of reality we call going steady, where all is too much or not enough, where madness becomes a way of life.

FOURTEEN. And what magic happens inside this sound– this is the lushest evocation of 70s soul I've heard in a while. The lambent gorgeousness of the grooves really is up there with EWF & Sly (and Robbie too) – and will find you in dancing mood, or holding your headphones tight on, nodding out those kinks in your neck and shoulders. The way ’20 Ft. Tall’ nearly floats off into space, Badu’s voice holding on to the ground by it’s fingernails (“What did I do to make you fall so far from me?/Selective memory”), everything else lifting off. The blissful Roots-style pop of ‘Window Seat’ (?uestlove on the drums) that barely masks its themes of escape and inescapability (“I don’t wanna time-travel no mo/ I wanna be here”). ‘Agitation’ is an astonishing minute-and-a-half that could be straight from Countdown To Ecstasy. ‘Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY)’ is the first absolute bomb – a gorgeous semi-locked groove that pipes summer into your cells, lyrics pitched somewhere between avarice and ardour, someone who feels themselves turning into a robot even as their inner workings go haywire. Fantastic things within the band’s reach, rhythm section keeping things simple yet stunning, Badu freed not for vocal acrobatics but to enjoy herself, get into some reggae falsettos, hit the off-beats and sevenths (“This love is chemical/electric particle/down to the minimal/tickle tickle ego stroke/I’ll be your robot girl”)

FIFTEEN. This record is like your first alcohol of the day, on a sunny hungover morning. Clears the head, lets you see the blue sky after the storms & wreckage of the previous night. After a while you start needing it every morning. Right now I head straight for ‘Gone Baby Don’t Be Long’ because the beats and bass and loops are a heavenly moebius you don’t wanna ever fall out of, and it catches the schizophrenic poses and passions of letting your lover out the door better than anything else here. ‘Umm-Hmm’ is good enough to sit next to late 70s Diana or Rose Royce, Dilla’s sci-fi drone-funk on ‘Love’ gets peppered by all kinds of extraneous wibble & wow, Badu coming on like Sly Stone. ‘Fall In Love (Your Funeral)’ is the only prep for romance you need: “You better go back the way you came/ wrong way/ if you stay/ prepare to have yo shit rearranged/ some slow sangin' and flower bringing/ if my burglar alarm starts ringing”, the narcotic, heavy assed rhodes-thunk chassis plunging into your brain, breaking yr bones. Closer ‘Out My Mind, Just In Time’ chops and screws its way through ten minutes that go from neurosis to psychosis, from the blues to avant-hip-hop to slo-mo psyche-funk, never letting go of you as you get engulfed in darkness and revelation. Startling, startling shit. I think this is the best album Badu has ever made.

SIXTEEN. Chuck D, as usual, was absolutely goddamned right when he spat “Your general subject 'love' is minimal, it's sex for profit”. Think of what's happened in the world in the past ten years and pop's cowardly retreat into 'you-and-me', into the 'personal' (bland chat in the main),seems almost deliberate and desperate. Nothing to say about anything important, or visionary, or real so let's blandly chat about ‘us’ and hope some of it is just wry-smile-inducing enough to play well with Evans and Moyles. War, terror, collapse nahh that’s gloomy news – let’s get the blinkers on, let's shut out the outside world and watch Hollyoaks and take notes for the next single. Of course that numbness and avoidance is common to us all (they call it facebook) but if we're gonna have lovesongs, let them be as hazy and real and unresolved as these, let them leave us none the wiser but palpably touched. Let them be sung by people who can write other types of songs too perhaps? Just a thought for all those guys wearing straw hats stood by rivers playing acoustic guitars having their adverts voice-overed by Jo Whiley. (Don't worry the Tories will be in soon. David Cameron likes you all. You've given him no reason not to.)

SEVENTEEN. Keep it like a secret Love. Let's stay out here on the frontline and watch the apocalypse unfold with remotes in our hand. Let's hide out a while and let the dust settle and get ready for war.

EIGHTEEN. We'll listen to Return Of The Ankh whilst you build the bombs. And I'll get that washing out the dryer.

NINETEEN. Then we'll get dressed, pose for a few last pictures and hit the streets.

TWENTY. We have a world to win. A world lost to the din of delusions, the racket of ‘reality’, the dumb need for happy endings, the sanctimony of self. A world that doesn’t deserve us. Soon they will all know. Soon there will be silence. With Return Of The Ankh, Love, you’re on the way back.