Off the Charts

Erykah Badu: The First Lady of Neo-Soul

Issue 141

Born Erica Abi Wright 1971 in Dallas, by her teens Erykah Badu was performing hip-hop on live radio shows. She chose the name “Badu” after her favorite syllables in jazz scat. That’s appropriate, since jazz, hip-hop, and R&B have shared equal influence in her music. The 50-year-old is now the inspiration for a new generation, even if a lifelong struggle with writer’s block has curtailed her output.

Badu was heavily involved in a Black experimental music collective called Soulquarian when she signed with Universal Music and recorded her first album, Baduizm (1997). Released on the Universal subsidiary Kedar Records, it debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop chart. Solid sales plus two Grammy awards quickly established Badu as an important voice in the neo-soul movement.

The song “Certainly” was co-written by Madukwu Chinwah, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer who shares a couple of Grammys with Badu. The arrangement and vocals exemplify the strong jazz underpinning in Badu’s music and how she melds that with R&B. And it’s not the easy side of jazz, no vague “jazzy” harmonies to create a certain mood; Badu is not afraid of the serious harmonic explorations of post-bop, a sound rarely found on the R&B charts.

 

Her next Grammy win was for the single “You Got Me,” a 1999 collaboration with the Roots. This was followed by her second studio album, Mama’s Gun (2000), the source of her first Top Ten single, “Bag Lady.” The Soulquarians are credited as the producers of this album, Badu’s first on Motown Records. (As is normal in the world of hip-hop and rap, each track has its own production team rather than one person acting as overall producer for the project.)

This autobiographical neo-soul album features some impressive guest artists, such as jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, whom Badu met as a teenager in Dallas, and soul singer Betty Wright, who cowrote and sings on the track “A.D. 2000.” That song is an extended riff on these lines: “You won’t be naming no buildings after me, to go down, dilapidated.” The philosophical statement is dripping with pride; the narrator is not concerned about being remembered in this temporal world. There’s outstanding work here by bassist Pino Palladino and acoustic guitarist Jef Lee Johnson.

 

Badu’s chronic fight with her own creativity is evident in the delay between her early albums. The industry certainly prefers that a hot young act pump out a record every year, but Badu would not be rushed. When she managed to finish Worldwide Underground (2003), the big hit was “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)”. This collaboration with rap artist Common (also from the Soulquarians) won Badu her fourth Grammy.

As a member of the hip-hop production group Freakquency, Badu employed the services of those artists for the album. One of them is RC Williams, whose website identifies him as Badu’s “current music director.” Williams co-wrote “Woo,” an intricate and sexy mix of soul and rap. Delicate sonic samples build a crystal dome around lyrics spoken and sung in Badu’s lowest register.

 

Badu’s singing voice is often compared with that of Billie Holiday; this is partly for its pitch and emotional range, but also for the way she uses it to expose the true experience of being Black in America, as Holiday famously did with songs like “Strange Fruit.” For New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) in 2008, Badu put her thoughts on social justice center-stage, crafting an album of powerful statements on racism and economic inequality as well as the importance of cultural community.

Her vocal work on this record is spectacular; the topic seemed to release every element of her multifaceted voice, every timbre, every style. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Soldier,” an anthem for the oppressed. As a city with a lot of socio-political strife, Detroit was a logical focal point for Badu’s energy in this project. “Soldier” grew out of a beat created by drummer and Detroit native Karriem Riggins, who has said in interviews that he and Badu were inspired by the sound of Detroit hip-hop artist J Dilla, who died in 2006.

 

In 2010, Badu released a follow-up album, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh). Despite its title, this record is a very different beast from Part One. First, it is more autobiographical than political, with songs discussing Badu’s personal relationships; critics, wishing for a repeat of Part One’s strident social commentary, were generally disappointed. Beyond the change in content, the album also takes a different approach to production, being more groove-driven and rhythmically regular, with a sonic immediacy to the vocals.

Part Two opens with “20 Feet Tall,” a collaboration with North Carolina-based rap producer Patrick Douthit and bass player Douglas Wimbish, who is best known as a member of Living Colour. The melody may be short and repetitive, but its chromatic twists make it completely original. Producer Mike Chav, who also worked on Part One, provides retro-sounding “electric piano” chords on the synthesizer while other sounds – chimes, a squeaking chair – flit by.

 

In the past decade, Badu has not been prolific. Half of that time was spent in Africa in an attempt to make new music, but she has not released any of it. When she returned, she was approached by Dallas-based producer Zach Witness about helping her put out a mixtape. That term, which originates in the 1980s trend of copying a unique collection of songs onto a cassette tape, has been appropriated in hip-hip culture to mean any DIY recording project. But You Cain’t Use My Phone (2015) was recorded in Badu’s Dallas studio and mixed in Witness’ home.

Badu took advantage of the low-stakes format to try some experimental pieces. The title of “Dial’Afreaq” is a play on “Dial a Freak,” a single by the 1980s funk crew Uncle Jamm’s Army, which was influential in the early development of hip-hop on the West Coast. Badu’s track (warning: explicit language) uses heavily-altered spoken vocals, each word clipped separately like those sets of magnets for writing poetry on your fridge door. Jazz and soul are left behind. In a way, this is a new side of Badu, but the roots of this purely hip-hop sound are there in her early work for those willing to acknowledge them.

 

Although she has continued to make occasional appearances onstage, Badu seems to have turned from the creation of music and toward the creation of a retail empire. After doing some modeling, she got involved in the world of fashion and fragrance and opened the online store Badu World Market in 2020. As volatile as the fashion industry is, it surely can’t be harder than songwriting.

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/livepict.com.

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