Reviewed on this page:
Baduizm - Live - Mama's Gun -
Worldwide Underground -
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) - New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh)
Dallas-born Erykah Badu is probably the foremost exponent of neo-soul, a form that seeks to revive the emotional delicacy and tunefulness
of 70s artists like Roberta Flack and Marvin Gaye, fused with the sparseness, immediacy
and hyperrealism of hip hop. The neo-soul label has been attached to everyone from Lauryn Hill to
Maxwell, Angie Stone to Alicia Keys.
I categorize Des'ree and Nicole Renée
in the group, and Jill Scott and India.Arie out of it, but that's just me.
Mini-mogul Kedar Massenburg exec produces about half these acts, including Badu.
She rises above the rest for a couple of reasons: one, her lyrics are terrific, idiosyncratic and personal but trenchant and
resonant; and two, she never stays in one bag for long... across her three albums she pays tribute to Billie Holiday and to the
Mary Jane Girls, without ever compromising her originality or sense of self.
Badu has become better known for her eccentricities (yard-high turbans, naming her son Seven, etc.) than for her music, which isn't exactly unfair - if she weren't so eccentric her music
probably wouldn't be as good - but shouldn't discourage you from checking her out.
Heartache (Erica Wright: rel. 1998)
A cash-in collection of early demos credited to Badu's birth name, released after she hit it big. (DBW)
A smash debut; Badu's brainstorm was combining modern R&B production
with a jazz nightclub vibe: stand-up bass loops and piano abound, and
her high, clear voice sounds something like Diana
Ross imitating Billie Holiday. She rises above retro redundancy with
biting lyrics, mostly exploring love and romance from atypical angles
("Otherside of the Game," "Next Lifetime"), often served up with humor
("Certainly," the improvised blues "Afro"). The single "On & On" (she won one Grammy for it, and one for the album as a whole) leaves
me cold, some of the tunes are forgettable ("4 Leaf Clover"), and several
of the backing tracks are perfunctory ("Appletree," "Rim Shot"), but
it's a worthwhile effort. There are at least a dozen producers including
Badu, who also cowrote nearly every track. (DBW)
Recorded in a small club, and the intimate setting is a good match for her jazzy delivery and low-key patter.
The band - Hubert Eaves IV (bass), Charles Bell (drums), Norman Hurt (keys), plus Joyce Stron, Karen Bernod and Chonita Gilbert (vocals) - keeps things mellow, which is fine because Badu keeps things moving, improvising lyrics
(including a rap during "On & On") and occasionally speechifying.
The tunes are mostly from her one studio album (duh), but there are also a couple of covers: a beautiful, unironic performance of the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night Long," and a lackluster rendition
of Rufus's "Stay" - Badu's lilting nasal voice is fine for her own material, but doesn't have the raw power to compete with Chaka Khan.
The new material isn't striking either ("Ye Yo"; the dull, repetitive kissoff "Tyrone" - also present in a studio version, which was released as a single).
Produced by Badu and Hurt.
In 1998, Badu guested on Outkast's Aquemini. (DBW)
Mama's Gun (2000)
Badu's sophomore release covers much more ground, opening with the blistering "Penitentiary Philosophy," organ-led funk recalling
Free Your Mind-era Funkadelic, and including everything from
mellow pop, often with flute backing ("Props To The Lonely People") to sparse, hip hop-inspired soul ("Cleva," "Booty").
Again the lyrics are terrific, treating familiar themes with lean verbiage and fresh images ("Kiss Me On My Neck," the single "Bag Lady").
Perhaps the high point is the multipart suite "Green Eyes," which opens as a Billie Holiday tribute (including faux 78 scratches) and builds into a more modern, but no less touching, examination of an ambivalent breakup.
There are a couple of lame tracks - the reggae duet with Stephen Marley ("In Love With You"),
the endless Five Percenter love song "Orange Moon" - and there are some overlong running times and too many
downtempo tracks in a row... the Donny Hathaway influence.
Produced by Badu, often in collaboration with James Poyser, Jay Dee, Jah Born or Air Tight Wilee;
musicians include Pino Palladino, Betty Wright (on "A.D. 2000"), Roy Hargrove, Roy Ayers and Ahmir "? Luv" Thompson.
Despite the similar rating, this is a lot better than Baduizm - if I could I'd give this 4.25 stars and the debut 3.25.
Also this year Badu contributed another Khan cover, "Hollywood," to the Bamboozled soundtrack.
In 2002, Badu's collaboration with Common, "Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip Hop)," appeared on the Brown Sugar soundtrack.
Worldwide Underground (2003)
Marketed as an EP, but with ten songs running over forty minutes, it sounds like an album to me, albeit a minor one.
The ambition and range of Mama's Gun are missing, as Badu sticks to midtempo retro-soul loops, and the two long
numbers don't develop ("Bump It," "I Want You").
Still, everything's pleasant, and sometimes excellent - "The Grind" with rhymes from Dead Prez; the super-catchy "Danger" -
and there's even some old school rapping from Queen Latifah,
Angie Stone and Badu on the Sequence tribute "Love Of My Life Worldwide."
Still, it's not a great sign that the most arresting piece of music is the brief instrumental outro to "I Want You."
Lots of guests, including Lenny Kravitz ("Back In The Day (Puff)"), Zap Mama, Caron Wheeler ("Bump It") and Hargrove ("Think Twice").
In 2007, Badu contributed vocals to Wu-Tang Clan's "The Heart Gently Weeps."
New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008)
Badu is back, more or less. Projected as the first disc of a two-part set, the album is more subtle than Mama's Gun, rolling along at medium speed with fairly conventional hip hop soul production, but just atypical enough to be intriguing ("Soldier").
After the old school funk opener "Amerykahn Promise," the record settles into several low-key grooves ("My People" is little more than a one-line chant). Badu's lyrics are a pithy mix of personal and political that I often find difficult to interpret ("The Cell," a fantastic singalong uptempo number), and it may be only her committed delivery that convinces me they're deep rather than incomprehensible. Still, she loses me with too many long, abstract numbers ("That Hump") before recovering with the lovely, Rhodes-colored "Telephone."
Produced by Badu, Poyser, ?uestlove, Sa-Ra, 9th Wonder (leadoff single "Honey," with an amusing early 80s synth line), Karriem Riggins ("Soldier") and Madlib ("The Healer (Hip Hop)"); Georgia Anne Muldrow guests on "Master Teacher."
New Amerykah Part Two (Return Of The Ankh) (2010)
Heavier on retro-soul than hip hop soul, with more live instrumentation and less uptempo fare than the previous release - though with the same mix of producers - and if I understand the lyrics at all she's focusing more on romance than on politics ("Turn Me Away (Get Munny)").
When Badu's on, she's breathtaking: the single "Window Seat" makes marvelous use of impressionistic vocals and here-again, gone-again synth bass, while the jazz piano fragment "Agitation" is astonishing.
"Gone Baby, Don't Be Long" - which samples McCartney's overlooked "Arrow Through Me" - is another winner.
But her tendency to indulge in endless underwritten mellow grooves really gets the best of her, as on tune after tune she's just vibing with no melody and nothing much to say ("Love"; the second half of ten-minute closer "Out My Mind, Just In Time"). So as high as the high points are, it's another mixed bag on a par with Worldwide Underground.
Jeez, those reviews go on & on.