There’s a YouTube clip of Erykah Badu’s 1997 Unplugged performance. She opens with “Rimshot,” walking on stage carrying a vase of flowers and draped in African-flavored fabrics, including a headdress that drapes down her back. She’s adorned in 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 Baduizm, her stunning 1997 debut album, which she’ll perform 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 close. Well, they had a few hands in the production pot on Baduizm, and of course, 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/servant/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: confronting the public with an unavoidable glance at the truth. Generations have been messed with, years of struggle have gone down, women are still treated like garbage, and racism is real. But it’s not all pain and strife. It’s also so much about love. And thought. Everyone remembers “Most intellects they don’t believe in God/But they fear us just the same.” 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, a proud, strong-willed sister climbing charts with lyrics about intellectualism, feminism, mysticism and skepticism about the American way? Yes, yes and yes.
“Next Lifetime” is a bittersweet and devastatingly relatable experience of a woman whose friend and confidant wants to devote himself to her and their love. She’s spoken for, yet can’t deny that there’s an attraction, a chemistry that could be so much more than a friendship. “Appletree” is another jazz-funky number that prominently displays Badu’s jazzy, 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 song. Here’s where you can really see the comparisons to Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone. She’s like a jazz siren whose voice sounds like it oscillates between chaotic, emotionally-channeled wails and hiccupy, breath-controlled syncopation.
Great records from Badu came after the 15-year-old Baduizm, 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 soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop and R&B and all their weird, mystic connections.
But on Saturday night, in addition to, hopefully, a few little surprises sprinkled in, she’ll do Baduizm all the way through. Maybe she’ll perform the daring “Window Seat,” the video for which she stripped naked on the mall where JFK was shot and actually got cited for indecency. Surprises or no, Badu’s got an old, musically-transformative soul and a firm, solid grasp on what makes music 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.
Sat., March 2, 8:30pm. $50-$55. Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St. 215.627.1332. electricfactory.info
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014