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 www.erykahbadu.com), 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