Erykah Badu

It’s been altogether too long since Erykah Badu released anything or played a live show anywhere near me. Here’s something I wrote about her for the first issue of Loose Lips Sink Ships, over a decade ago.


“‘Freakquency’ is born and neo-soul is dead. Are you afraid of change?”

– sleeve for Erykah Badu’s ‘Worldwide Underground’ EP

I love art because its only limits are those which you place on yourself. I’m old enough to know what a rarity such freedom is, young enough to remember how delicious it tastes.

Erykah Badu is Erykah Badu, from the wispiest top licks of her globular ‘fro, to the tip of the twig of incense smoulderin’ out her mouth like a posh white lady’s cigarette-holder, to the ragged sleeves of her utilitarian revolutionary’s overcoat, to the velveteen swishes of the stunning green gown she sleekly hides ‘neath. There are blurs and echoes of other artists crunched nugget-sized in there too (and how off the mark does that glib ‘Hip-Hop Billie Holliday’ soubriquet she was initially saddled with seem today?), but, truly, she’s her own creation now. Three albums (four if you count 1997’s incandescent, majestic live album, two if you disallow it and last year’s sprawling hour-long ‘EP’ ‘Worldwide Underground’) into her recording career, she remains maverick and unpredictable, no matter how many killjoy crits wanna slay her with some bewilderingly negatory Neo-Soul tag, just because she isn’t shacking up with Neptunes for her every release (which makes me wonder, how is harking back to an era of militant and free-thinking album-orientated soul artists of the 1970s vintage like Stevie Wonder, or Betty Davis, or Minnie Riperton, or Donna Summer, or ‘Emergency Ward!’-era Nina Simone (not that Badu sounds necessarily like any of these, we’re talking mindsets as opposed to simple mimicry) any more reactionary or retro than returning to the 1960s dynamic of black female singers as primarily singles artists, artistically beholden and secondary to their producers?). It’s a tag which plain doesn’t even fit her anymore, given how her last two albums tore up the classic souljazz blueprint of ‘Baduism’ in favour of a freeform template that hotwires melting Rhodes electric pianos to airless 80s synthdrums, juddering titanic hip-hop scratches over flickering 1930s torchsongs, and all manner of exquisitely glitched soultronica, synchronising archaic elements and rudimentary futurism, rehumanising tired passages of heartbreak in genuinely moving ways and preaching some fusion of new-age spiritualism and functional feminism and radicalised Afrocentrism. But that’s enough of this -ism jism.

I first really got deep into Badu shortly after the death of Jeff Buckley, oddly enough. Jonesing for another unique voice to sing me songs that’d break my heart, I figured Badu would fit the bill. And what a voice she has; in an era when quivering uber-vibrato through every octave known and unknown is all an overblown karaoke maven needs to claim stardom, Badu is a revelation. Sure, she could match ‘em for the flashy verbal pyrotechnics, but, like any artist worth anything, the key is not what she can do, but what she chooses to do (and, implicitly, what she chooses not to), the flashes of perversity, the rerouting of traditions, the flavour and candour of her voice. Not to mention those moments when she just soars off into planes of unguarded ecstasy, like the closing moments of ‘Bag Lady’, or that note she held in Brixton in December, halfway through ‘Other Side Of The Game’, that rang out, radiant, full of sorrow and truth and beauty and courage, just a bolt of pure and unabashed emotion that anyone’s words would fail to truly convey, because its spectral magic circumnavigates literal logic.

Like ‘I Want You’ off ‘Worldwide Underground’, eleven minutes of gorgeous monotony, a treatise on funk-as-water-torture. It opens with around two minutes of Badu stuttering “I… I… I… I… I…” like a stuck record, before she slurs “…want…you…you…you…you…” on&on again&again, and initially the temptation is to write off this slab of indigestible soul-concrete as some tedious pretension. Until the payoff hits, the one-note stutter morphing from its stasis into some minimal synth-splash and fatback groove, Badu piecing together a brittle diorama of The-Perfect-Love-That-Is-Also-The-Relationship-That-Can’t-Ever-Work (a staple of her lyric book, cf. ‘Time’s A Wasting’, ‘Next Lifetime’) for a verse, before the track lapses back into this heartskip stammer, lissom wails of “What we gonna do?” hanging dolorously in the air, the sheer world-flattening tragedy of this essential conflict in Badu’s soul – what she wants vs what she can have – articulated via the track’s conjoined hooks (“I… Want… You…” and “What we gonna do?”) melding into some throbbing wall of noise, obliterating everything else on the track. It’s pretty fucken heavy.

In moments like these, Badu operates like the cipher in hip-hop; she’s a lightning rod for woe, and that’s what you feel at an Erykah Badu concert: like this is a communal space where such feelings are shared wordlessly, and expunged, with Badu’s siren, imbued with pain but also dignity, serving as a shared catharsis, not unlike the effect Gil Scott-Heron sang of on ‘Lady Day & John Coltrane’ (guess that Billie Holliday reference makes a little more sense now).

Not that this is her only mode or mood. At last year’s Brixton date (she could’ve sold the venue out several times over, but is reluctant to perform anywhere else in London, which, allied to her self-imposed media-blackout of late, attests to her belief in the Worldwide Underground – a belief the audience she deserves should/will find her without mercenary marketing campaigns; she spent what passed for her ‘aftershow’ hanging with fans in her dressing room for several hours, doubtless discussing music and what incense is best for listening to specific Badu songs, a glimpse into the traffic on the messageboard on, towards the end of the set, she approached a weird, retrofuturistic-looking thingummajig onstage and started pounding out freakbeat rhythms on this oddball drum machine for ten minutes or so, like some stoner’s momentary obsession, only it sounded pretty amazing, her tapping in this symphony of weird glitch explosions, grin plastered across her face. Its indulgent more than self-indulgent, because there’s no doubt this kind of eccentricity is definitely what many of us in her audience ask of her – that she teeter between the acknowledged poles of sublime and ridiculous, and that her every gesture swing violently in one direction or other, while still retaining a morsel of its opposite.

Like Indigo, from Ntozake Shange’s wonderful novel, ‘Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo’ (Picador USA) – the girl with “too much of the south in her”, mapping the changes in her body and her burgeoning womanhood to a metaphysical concept of magic, imagining the cures for every ill hidden in weird recipes and esoteric spells, and believing that her music enchants, can heal, can bring her dolls to life – she’s possessed of a wonderful naivety, ploughing through the realms of what shouldn’t be done in pursuit of what hasn’t yet been done. So she can play stardusted hippy chick, Black Pantheress, street feminist, new age sensualist, hip-hop queen, Earth mother, moonchild, modern woman livin’ just enuff for the city, all of these, because in her mind any contradictions these might suggest simply don’t exist, and the energy, creativity and vivacity of her art are so forceful as to convince us of that, too, in the heat of musical contact. And afterwards, those contradictions compose merely another layer of idiosyncrasy for us to affectionately sort through, the intrigue amongst this abundancy of ecstasy.

I love Erykah Badu, because she is Erykah Badu every precious moment that she sings. May her feet never touch the ground.
(c) Stevie Chick 2004

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Chastity Belt / Matthew E White / D’Angelo


Buy the new issue of MOJO! There’s fab features on Kim Gordon, The Pop Group and Jackson Browne, a piece on an obscure new band called Led Zeppelin (you may not have heard of them but I think they will go far), and my profile of the fabulous Chastity Belt. Also, I review the new Matthew E White album; spoiler: it’s a cracker.

And last weekend I saw what was easily one of the greatest live performances of my entire gig-going career. I could wax on for hundreds of words about how wonderful D’Angelo & The Vanguard were at the Hammersmith Apollo. In fact, I did, and you can read it here.

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Afghan Whigs / Billy Joel / Natalie Prass / DJ Shadow

Hello! We’re already almost halfway through February, and here’s the stuff I’ve done so far this year.

An epic review of the 21st Anniversary reissue of Afghan Whigs’ masterful Gentlemen.

A rundown of Billy Joel’s ten finest tracks (yes he’s done ten great tracks, don’t be smart).

The wonderful Natalie Prass, live in London.

DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist go joyriding with Afrika Bambaataa’s record bag.

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2014: 20 of the best

Every year always seems to me to be the best year ever for music, and the moment it doesn’t is the moment I quit this world. Here are my favourite albums of 2014, sort of in no particular order, though the Top 5 sort of is. If you missed out on that Kate Tempest album, go search it out, as she’s as singular and impressive a talent as I’ve ever seen, and her album Everybody Down is a remarkable achievement, the Concept Album/Song Cycle/Rap-opera that delivers more with every subsequent listen. East India Youth is Robert Wyatt meets Giorgio Moroder meets Tim Hecker meets Brian Wilson, but totally his own thing, and totally wonderful. Ty Segall… Well, Ty’s rocked my world for the last few years with albums like Melted and Twins and Slaughterhouse, along with a slew of singles and such-like, and Manipulator pulls off that trickiest of manouevres, translating his cultish brilliance to a broader canvas without selling out the weird kinks that made him so bewitching in the first place. Young Fathers totally deserved that Mercury Prize, though so did Kate and East India Youth, and perhaps its a testament to such a great year of music that three artists were up for a gong that typically leaves me totally cold. And that D’Angelo album hasn’t been out long enough for me to get fed up of it yet, or to totally unravel all its charms, but I’m loving the ride, and every corner of its sprawling funk.

Bring on 2015.

kate tempest

east india youth

ty segall

young fathers



the bug


icarus line

pink mountaintops


gallon drunk

neil young

mark lanegan

angel olsen

shabazz palaces




thee oh sees

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Mary J Blige, Supremes, Genesis

I’ve not been updating a huge amount this summer, as our wonderful baby daughter arrived in May and has very much been my focus ever since, but I’ve recently been contributing more lists for the Guardian’s regular 10 Of The Best feature, compiling the ten greatest moments in the Supremes’ recording career, and ditching all semblance of ‘cool’ in order to distill Genesis’ decades of progular activity down to ten tunes. These lists were an awful lot of fun to write, I hope they’re as much fun to read. If not, you could always submit a load of abuse in the Guardian comments’ sections, I believe that’s what they’re there for.

I’ve also managed to see a couple of gigs since parenthood descended upon us; please enjoy reviews of Mary J Blige at the Camden Roundhouse, and Jerry Dammers’ remarkable Spatial AKA Arkestra at the Barbican.

More Loose Lips updates coming very soon.

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Mugstar in Loose Lips Sink Ships / GULLICKNESS

Hello! I interviewed the fantastic Mugstar, Liverpool-based architects of squalling, hypnotic space-rock, for Loose Lips Sink Ships, and you can read it here, alongside some typically marvelous photography from Steve Gullick.

And if you’re a fan of Steve’s work [if you’re not, I’m assuming you must be blind, and if so then how are you reading this, eh?], you might be interested to learn that his book of Nirvana-era photography, Nirvana Diary, is soon to be available – more info here. Get up close and personal to Steve’s actual photographs at Rough Trade East from August 4th, and get up close and personal with Steve himself – in the company on the ever-awesome Keith Cameron – at this event on August 20th.

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Madness: 10 Of The Best in The Guardian

I’ve done a couple of these 10 Of The Bests for The Guardian this year, but none presented quite such a challenge as distilling the genius of Madness into only 10 choice tracks. Madness were the first pop band I ever loved – a perfect first pop band, I think, given their joyous lunacy, but also the weird twists and subtle politics of their later work. They were the first pop band I ever saw live – Southampton Gaumont, Mad Not Mad tour; they hurled ten-foot-tall blue balloons into the audience for the encore, which is how you win over a nine-year-old. This was personal.

Selecting ten songs that encompassed the breadth of their vision, their ever-changing-moods, their unique Nutty THING was tough as nails, but I enjoyed every spin and respin of their entire catalogue under the guise of “research”. Disagree with my choices? Then get thee to the Guardian comments section…

Other 10 Of The Bests you are invited to digest and tarry with:

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