Introduction Erykah Badu is a goddess and a diva, and as such she deserves an appropriate introduction. Fortunately, she excels at introductions. Track 1 on her albums can always be counted on to set the tone and she has a flair for the dramatic when making her entrance on stage. You may find that this six minute intro her band provided for a 2006 concert in Rome provides a good soundtrack for perusing this write-up. To complete the vibe, you may want to light some incense:
Erykah Badu is most famous as a singer/songwriter and is one of the great soul/R&B performers of her generation. In the past she has been closely associated with the "neo-soul" or "nu-soul" genre that sprung up in the late 90's that represented a return to more organic soul sounds remeniscent of classic 70's soul while incorporating elements of hip-hop. At this point I think it is fair to say that her work has outlived and/or outstripped that genre pigeonhole, but her music remains poised between the past and the future and deeply indebted to soul, R&B, jazz, funk, hip hop and rap.
Erykah Badu grew up in Dallas, TX and was exposed to theater and music from an early age. She left college to pursue music and teach music and dance in the early 90's, and she eventually recorded a demo and a duet with D'Angelo which led to a record deal with Motown. Her debut album, 1997's Baduizm, was an immediate success both on the charts and with critics. The lead single On & On and the album both topped the R&B charts. The album peaked at #2 on the U.S. charts and went triple-platinum. Later that same year, Badu released Live, which recorded many of the songs from Baduizm mixed with covers and new songs. This instant classic also topped the R&B charts and produced the single Tyrone.
The 1-2 punch of Baduizm and Live quickly established Badu as a major force both commercially and artistically and also made her a leading light of the newly named "Neo-soul" genre. Along with artists such as D'Angelo, Maxwell and Lauren Hill, Badu was identified as someone who looked to Soul music's roots in 1970's classics by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Roberta Flack. Badu's performance with a (superb) live band on Live brought emphasis to this aspect of her sound.
Badu was notable for her eccentric fashion and philosophical musings. In performance and in videos she wore large, colorful headwraps with African influenced dress, and she referred to Ancient Egyptian symbols and concepts in her music and performance.
Badu became closely associated with a group of musicians that dubbed themselves the Soulquarians. The loosely-knit collective included Badu, D'Angelo, Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, J-Dilla and Common among others. James Poyser was also part of this group and played keys and contributed songwriting to several early Badu albums. The Neo-Soul/Soulquarians scene reached impressive peaks in the year 2000. Badu's second recording Mama's Gun, D'Angelo's Voodoo and Common's Like Water for Chocalate were all produced last year with significant input from this rotating group of collaboraters.
Badu's next release, 2003's Worldwide Underground, brought funk to the forefront and saw Badu sometimes replacing the headwraps with a gigantic afro wig. Parliment-Funkadelic was now showing as a major influence in Badu's sound. After a five year gap between albums's, 2008's New Amerykah Part One (Fourth World War) the P-funk influence came fully to a light with a densely intricate album that focused more on grooves, feels and ideas than songs or hooks. In headgear news, Badu appeared at the SXSW festival in 2009 sporting unadorned closely cropped hair.
Badu has three children and lives in Dallas, TX and Brooklyn, NY.
The release that put Badu on the map and that contains many of the songs that she still plays regularly today. This release seems is the least reliant on live instumentation and probably the one that tracks the most closely to typical mainstream R&B (at least in its time). For that reason, I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point. It is a very solid album with some good tracks that don't appear elsewhere ("Afro" is classic), but for my money, most of the best songs here sound better on "Live".
This is how I was introduced to Badu, about when it was released in 1997. She instantly became one of my favorite artists and that has remained true to this day. I consider this to be one of the better live releases of any kind. The band is smokin'. The back-up singers are amazing. Badu shows of her power and grandeur and her vulnerability and humor. The banter between songs ranges from philosophical musings to playful interaction with the crowd ("Fellas, put your hand on your male principle.", "I'm an artist and I'm sensitive about my sh!t."). This is a good a place as any to mention that the bass playing on Badu's albums from here on out is sublime. I started playing bass about the same time I got into this album, and the tone and feel that Hubert Eaves III gets here is what electric bass is supposed to sound like in my book. From the standout songs from "Baduizm" like On & On, Apple Tree and The Other Side of the Game to the cover of Chaka Khan and Roy Ayers, the whole album smokes. The masterful conclusion is new song "Tyrone", and you can just hear the crowd get whipped into a frenzy as this brand new song unfolds. There is a youtube link to this video below, but unfortunately the video quality is bad and some of it is bleeped out. You should listen to this album.
Do you think I wasted all of my hyperbole talking about "Live"? I would say this is Badu's best albums, and frankly one of the best soul albums period. "Penitentiary Philosophy" is one of the great lead tracks, and it instantly announces a fierce funk vibe. "Didn't Cha Know" displays that Pino Pallidino will be presiding over the low end and gives one of the sublime bass hooks that I am aware of. Playful-vulnerable-jazzy on "Clever", playful-funky-baddass on "Booty", full-blown Stevie Wonder-esque synth line on "2000 A.D.". And ending in bare bones accappella vulnerability with "Green Eyes" ("My eyes are green/because I eat a lot of vegetables/its got nothing...to do with your new friend"). What an album.
I feel like this was originally billed as an EP, but it is really longer than many albums. It does, however, seem a like it was a bit more thrown together than the other albums. This goes further down the funk path, with more funk guitar coming into play, and brings out the hip-hop influence more explicit with rapping over several tracks. The P-Funk sample/cover predicts the full-on Parliament Funkadelic freakout that would follow. There are definitely some great tracks, including Back in the Day (Puff), which really ought to be played at Bonnaroo. The vibe is definitely groovy throughout. It doesn't quite hold together like her best work.
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
In re-listening to all of this stuff for this write-up, I realized that this doesn't quite live up to her peak stuff for me. It is still a remarkable and fascinating album that is very easy to listen to. Deep grooves, drawn out chants, narration from midgets and giants, lyrics that range from the political to the metaphysical, this has so much in common with 70's P-Funk its ridiculous, but it never sounds derivitive or trite. The sprawled out messiness of it was gives it its appeal. You never know when a jazzy little accappella burst or deep funk groove is around the next corner. That also ends up being a limitation, and its hard to pick out standout "songs" from the extremely appealing whole. I would recommend getting to this after listening to some of the above, or if you really like the weirder 70's P-Funk albums.
Sounds Like Genre: Soul/R&B, heavily influenced by jazz, funk, hip-hop.
Here is Badu's own "sounds like" description from her myspace:
"when you wake up in the morning and you hear the chirping of baby birds... wit a lil more HUMP"
Similar Artists: The "neo-soul" label suggests D'Angelo, Maxwell, Jill Scott, Lauren Hill etc. I think Chaka Khan is one of the closest comparisons. Some of the jazzier numbers invite comparison to Billie Holiday. Her album work calls to mind Stevie Wonder's best period.
Similar Bonnaroo Artists: Rapheal Saadiq has also been associated with the "neo-soul" label, but his recent act is, like Sharon Jones, even more explicitly "retro" than neo-soul.
Al Greene is of course one of the legends that never required any "neo" before his soul.
Suggested Listening Listen to Live and Mama's Gun if you like music. (I will try to update this section later)
Here are a couple of clips from a Rome 2006 show and a VH1 2008 show that are available in good quality on youtube:
Impov from fall 2008
Soldier on VH1
Here is Tyrone from Live, with poor video and unfortunately censored:
Here are two music videos - On & On, which really put Badu on the map in '97, and Honey, which is a pretty brilliant tribute to classic album covers even if its not one of my favorite tunes. Honey was included on the last album, but was more a between-albums single than part of the album.
A "Rehearsal Space" video on the latest album:
I have seen Badu three times between 1999 and 2004, including twice at (much smaller than Roo) outdoor festival settings. I considered the first two sets to be among the best shows I'd ever seen (the last one was far from shabby). She will have a bad-ass funk/soul band with her, likely including three or more back-up singers and maybe flute or horns. In a perfect world I could see a collab with some Jazz tent participants. If ?uestlove is there he will show up. She will get quiet and jazzy, loud and funky, will make you dance, will make you think. She will banter plenty with the crowd and let you know exactly what is on her mind.
Her personel seem to rotate quite a bit and none of these names are familiar to me, but here is a listing of band members from fansite erykah-badu.com: R.C. Williams - keys Dwayne Kerr - flute Braylon Lacy - bass Stephen Bruner - bass James Clemons - percussion Milton Honore - guitar Raphael Iglehart - drums Chris Dave - drums Burton Smith - DJ Koryan Wright (Nayrok) - choir Keisha Williams - choir Cherish Robinson - choir Eugenia Bess - choir Rachel Yahvah - choir
nice man. you are doing a great job. you should sign up to do some more artists. the only thing i would add is the bag lady video. and you got me with the roots. and i also remember a really cool performance from the chappelle show if you can find it. also interesting side note the outkast song ms. jackson was actually about erykah, well and her mom (ms. jackson).
A Thieve's Parade 2/24 Conspirator 2/26 Kevin Smith 3/11 Keller 3/17 Papadosio 3/18 JJ Grey 3/25 Bela Fleck/Edgar Meyer 3/26 Toubab Krewe 3/27 O'Death 4/11 Budos Band 4/22 EOTO 4/28 Summer Camp 5/6-29 All Good