The Music of Afro-Hippie Erykah Badu

All the attention has been on her video strip act, but the neo-soul diva's latest album has some pretty good tunes.

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C Flanigan/FilmMagic

With New Amerykah Part Two: The Return of the Ankh, Erykah Badu has secured her status as the bonafide Afro-Hippie of the neo-soul generation. Five albums into the music game, her work is still fresh, and gives listeners an occasional throwback to jazz artists like Miles Davis (who reinvented himself countless times) and Billie Holiday, who created a signature style.

Return of the Ankh differs in cohesion alone from World War 4, part one of her NewAmerykah trilogy. The melodies complement each other; she creates a thread that ties all the songs together. Ever the consummate artist, Badu shows her versatility as a contemporary artist by mixing styles and aesthetics on this album. She gives a nod to Biggie's Junior Mafia in "Turn Me Away (Get Munny);" she represents her R&B following beautifully in "Umm Hmm;" and she doesn't skimp on her love for hip-hop in her collaboration with Lil Wayne and Bilal on "Jump Up in the Air and Stay There." She pays homage to Billie Holiday in the song "Out My Mind (Just in Time)." She sings: "I'm a recovering, undercover over lover/ recovering from a love I can't get over/ And now my common law lover thinks he wants another."

Of late, it seems Badu has become a victim of her success. In doing something different, she's become self-indulgent. She's stitched a career around a persona that once was shy and is now outsized and rebellious. Recently, we've witnessed less of the colorfully wrapped Erykah and more of a new Badu that's free-loving, who changes wigs with each song, is more costume-conscious, more mutable. It's not that this is a bad thing, as artists should evolve but the thing is--evolutions are slow changes.

In a 2008 New York Times article, Badu rejected the title of queen of neo soul, "I hated that because what if I don't do that anymore? What if I change? Then that puts me in a penitentiary."

What we are seeing is less evolution than a revolving door: rapid changes in style and temperament that, in the minds of many, are affecting the work. The recent video snafu is a good example of how Badu's political rhetoric is half-baked, disjointed, not clearly communicating her artistic vision. There's even a naïveté on Badu's part that's shocking: It appears she believes that by merely saying her work is radical, that makes it so. As if her fans won't ask her to prove it.

Badu, a multi-platinum Grammy Award winner, is no underground, Bohemian, starving artist who can critique society as an outsider. Each time she changes a wig, or blings her ankh, or admits to the New York Times that she's a "brand," she participates in the game, and, dare I say, becomes a part of the mainstream culture that her New AmErykah project claims to critique. But Badu is just one of many artists who struggle with being thrust into mainstream success while still identifying themselves as independents.

While this album is solid on its merits, it's often eclipsed by the increasingly eccentric behavior of Badu, which distracts from her work and reduces her gift to the object of gossip columns. Her lyrics have grown more esoteric, less grounded. Ms. Badu recently did a song that's not included on this album called "Annie (Don't Wear No Panties)" and that sums up the entire song. Some of her listeners may wonder--who's writing her music? Why are we getting all these weed-induced riffs? Where's the deep thought? We want a new AmErykah but with a double side order of some of the old Erykah that we've grown up loving.

Abdul Ali is a culture writer in Washington, D.C. His blog is Words Matter. Follow him on Twitter,

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