There’s a YouTube clip of Erykah Badu’s 1997 Unplugged performance (below). In it she opens with “Rimshot,” walking onto stage with a vase of flowers draped in African-flavored fabrics, including a headdress that falls down her back. She’s got on lots of jewelry: bangles, cuffs, rings, armbands. She features the ankh, she’s spiritual and worldly in a decidedly un-Christian manner. And “Rimshot” is an appropriate opener, being the opening track to her stunning debut in the same year, Baduizm, which she’ll perform (seemingly in its entirety) at the Electric Factory Saturday night.
You know what’s exciting, too? The record has some light and tight Philly connections to it. You know Badu and The Roots are thick. Well they had a few hands in the production pot on Baduizm, and bits of it were recorded here in Philadelphia at Sigma Studios. It earned her a Grammy, one of her 19 nominations and four wins. Two she won for her debut: Best R&B Album and for the game-changing single, “On and On.”
In its video she’s some kind of weird nanny/housekeeper/slave/cinderella. She picks up the house, braids hair, rangles livestock and falls in shitty mud (”Damn, y’all feel that?”). It’s the kind of thing she’s at home with, she’s comfortable with – confronting the public with the unavoidable glare of the truth. Generations have been messed with, years of struggle have gone down, women are treated like garbage still and racism is real. But it’s not all pain and strife. It’s also so much about love. And about thought. Everyone remembers “Most intellects they don’t believe in God / But they fear us just the same,” right? In the Unplugged clip she slightly alters the chorus with: “They fear me just the same” and “They fear you just the same.” A woman like her was a welcome breath of fresh air almost two decades ago – a jazzy, strong-willed black woman who’s climbing charts with lyrics about intellectualism, feminism, mysticism and skepticism about the American way? Yes yes yes yes.
“Next Lifetime” is a bittersweet and devastatingly relatable experience of a woman who’s friend and confidant wants to devote himself to her; he’s in love. She’s spoken for and yet can’t deny that there’s an attraction, a chemistry that could be so much more than a friendship. The soul in this track is deep and with songs like these, she firmly planted herself alongside a couple of the best records of an emerging genre: neo-soul had a new queen with D’Angelo (Brown Sugar was 1995) and Maxwell (Urban Hang Suite was 1996) in her court.
“Appletree” is another jazz-funky number that prominently displays her jazz-schooled, scat-capable and controlled vocals. It also features a groove that’d fit nicely on a Guru track, a Roots record or a Mos Def jawn. Here’s where you can really see the comparisons to Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone. She’s like a jazz siren who’s voice sounds like it oscillates between chaotic, emotionally-channeled wails and breath-controlled, hiccupy syncopation.
Baduizm’s almost 15 years old. Great records from her came after, of course, as did other outstanding collaborations. She slayed it, clearly, on The Roots’ landmark Things Fall Apart single “You Got Me,” for which she earned another Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. And when she dated Common, their “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” won Best R&B song in 2003. Then, out of nowhere, she dropped two New Amerykah records in 2008 and 2010 that were mind-blowing testaments to her lifelong devotion to neo-soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop and R&B and all their weird and mystic connections.
But on this night in Philadelphia, in addition to, hopefully, a few little surprises sprinkled in, she’ll do Baduizm all the way. No doubt with a full-ass band: at least 10 pieces – backup singers, brass, strings, pianist, percussion. Gotta have a “rimshot.” She’s moved beyond headdresses and ankhs, but her new incarnation of image is an afro and she’ll almost definitely sport one for some time and snatch it off her head at an opportune moment. Maybe during the daring “Window Seat,” the filming of said single’s video saw her stripping naked on the mall where JFK was shot and actually getting cited for indecency as a result. She’s the real deal. She’s got an old, musically-transcendent heart and a firm, solid grasp on what makes soul music that’s stirring, funky, modern and soothing. She’s the closest thing we’ve got to a priestess of R&B – the wise godmother of Frank Ocean and A$AP Rocky.