Erykah Badu transforms the flotsam and jetsam of hip-hop.
On a Monday evening in August of 1996, I went to see the Roots perform at the Knitting Factory, in downtown Manhattan. The band had come from Philadelphia for a three-night stand in support of their “illadelph halflife” album. At one point during the set, I noticed a tall woman with an enormous head wrap standing in the front row of the crowd. Toward the end of the evening, the group’s bassist, Leonard (Hub) Hubbard, gestured for the woman to come onstage. The lead rapper, Tariq (Black Thought) Trotter, announced, “This is a friend of ours from Dallas, Texas. Her name is Erykah Badu.”
“I was skeptical about her jumping onstage,” the band’s leader, Ahmir (?uestlove) Thompson, told me by telephone last week. “We kinda looked at singers as soft, and we thought that most singers looked down on hip-hop the same way that actors looked down on rappers-cum-actors.” Badu was different, though. “Most singers need to pick the key and tell you how the song goes,” ?uestlove said. “She didn’t need anything. She was quick.” Dressed in long, draping clothes that she had made herself, and wearing what ?uestlove described as “the highest platform shoes I’d ever seen in my life,” Badu looked like a queen. She was rail thin, with a wide face and terrifyingly subtle and balanced facial geometry. Imagine the good monarch from a desert planet, the one you’d consult for wisdom just as your universe-saving mission started falling apart.
That night, she sang a song that suggested a vocal comparison that has dogged her, and other singers, in the past decade, though it wasn’t such a common reference point in 1996: Billie Holiday. Badu has astonishing pitch and a broad range, but her voice is slightly nasal, and she was smearing words together with Holiday’s smiling inflection. The song she chose was “Appletree,” a cutesy number with an anachronistic bent: “And if you don’t want to be down with me, you don’t want to be from my apple tree.” The performance was riveting. “We had a friend from Philadelphia in the audience, who was working on a record with us,” ?uestlove recalled. “After she saw Erykah, she literally packed up and went home. She said, ‘There’s no way I can compete with that.’ ”
Badu has long since dropped the Lady Day inflections. Her just released album, “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War),” is a brilliant resurgence of black avant-garde vocal pop, convincing in its doubts and stable in its unmoored ways. This lineage started, roughly, in the late sixties, with Sly Stone, on the West Coast, and, a bit later, Marvin Gaye, in Detroit; continued through George Clinton’s various iterations of Funkadelic and Parliament; and bled into the work of one of the great soul acts of the nineties, D’Angelo, a friend of Badu’s. In fact, “New Amerykah” sounds a lot like an unintended sequel to D’Angelo’s masterpiece (and his most recent album, now eight years old), “Voodoo.” Like “Voodoo”—and like Miles Davis’s “On the Corner,” as several critics have noted—“New Amerykah” is a relatively short record that feels infinitely relaxed, and favors sound and mood over choruses and verses. It is the work of a restless polymath ignoring the world around her and opting for an idiosyncratic, murky feeling that reflects her impulses. (Badu helped construct many of the backing tracks herself, running GarageBand on a laptop.) The success of that sound has resulted in Badu’s best opening week since her first album, “Baduizm,” was released, eleven years ago: both albums débuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
“Baduizm” was one of the first releases to be tagged “neo-soul,” a genre that has little to do with older soul music but does tend toward slow tempos, a pronounced bass line, hushed instrumental moves, like quiet rim shots (“I want a rim shot, hey, diggy diggy,” goes the first song on “Baduizm”), and the use of an electro-acoustic keyboard, most often a Fender Rhodes. This is what the Roots sounded like in 1996 as well, at least a little. (?uestlove, also a producer, has appeared on all but one of Badu’s four studio recordings.)
“New Amerykah” is a swirling, turbid thing, and while it represents a shift in stylistic emphasis, it isn’t a total departure. From the beginning of her career, Badu pushed against the tendencies of neo-soul, no matter how well her music fit into smooth radio formats. Her first hit, “On & On” (1997), for example, wasn’t about any one subject, though there was a specific basis for some of the lyrics: the Nation of Islam of Gods and Earths, a splinter group formed in Harlem by Clarence 13X Smith after he broke with the Nation of Islam, in 1963. Smith’s philosophy holds that only five per cent of the population possess “knowledge of self,” and that they have an obligation to educate the ignorant eighty-five per cent. (The other ten per cent are enlightened but self-interested and creepy.) Smith was murdered in 1969 (the crime is still unsolved), but his teachings found new popularity with New York rappers in the late eighties and early nineties. When Badu sings, “My cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone,” she’s employing Smith’s usage of “cipher”—a ring of people reciting portions of Smith’s teachings. The word eventually became more common in hip-hop, where it is used to describe a group of rappers arrayed in a circle and reciting rhymes. All this undertow is probably imperceptible to most of the three million people who have bought “Baduizm,” but, when Badu refers to “master teachers” on “New Amerykah,” the ghost of Smith is present.
?uestlove was right about Badu: her records may not feature much rapping, but her music is steeped in the sounds and culture of hip-hop. One of the first tracks to leak from “New Amerykah” was “The Healer,” a song that has little to do with any known genre. It begins with a brief snippet from a song by Malcolm McLaren featuring the World’s Famous Supreme Team, an obscure reference that will be instantly recognizable to hip-hop’s faithful—a sort of secular analogue of Smith’s Five Percent philosophy. “The Healer” was produced by Madlib, an independent hip-hop producer who usually works with rappers; the music flirts with total stasis, though it still has an audible beat. Bells, unidentifiable knocks, a lonesome instrument that might be a sitar, or a guitar, and lots of empty space: this is Badu’s backdrop. She starts by chanting a shout-out to a variety of religions: “Humdililah, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Dios, Maat, Jah, Rastafari.” The core of the song, which is sort of a chorus, is a spoken series of assertions about hip-hop: it’s “bigger than religion,” the government, and a variety of other things. Badu also sings a dedication to “Dilla,” a reference to the hip-hop producer James (Jay Dee) Yancey, a beloved figure and collaborator of Madlib’s who died, from complications of lupus and a blood disorder, in 2006, at the age of thirty-two.
But if you listen only once to “The Healer” it is clear that the song itself, like the other songs on “New Amerykah,” isn’t so much hip-hop as it is a reorganization of the historical flotsam and jetsam that were recycled and turned into hip-hop. The album’s opening track, “Amerykahn Promise,” demonstrates how widely the album ranges. Over a seventies funk vamp, Badu mumbles; a chorus of female voices sings “American promise”; and a deep male voice intones, in the manner of a corrections officer speaking over a P.A. system, “Excuse me, young lady, excuse me, you’re causing quite a disturbance over here.” (He later asks for a “brain-tissue sample.”) This seventies production is actually from the seventies; it is the backing track from a 1977 album produced by the vibraphonist Roy Ayers, who gave it to Badu to rework. (She is singing over the original master tape.) What the track most recalls is the opening of a Funkadelic record, like “Maggot Brain,” or the moments when George Clinton would let a variety of characters play out paranoid scenarios, and blend explicit political satire into unhinged, improvisatory funk.
The feeling of paranoia is strong on several tracks. “Twinkle,” a remarkably odd track that Badu co-produced with the engineer Mike Chavarria—he is responsible for many of the album’s deep and strange sounds—starts with a sample of what might be film dialogue, and seems to involve a fight. The music is full of dread and uneasiness. Badu raps, “Children of the matrix be hittin’ them car switches, seen some virgin Virgos hanging out with Venus bitches,” and then uses melodic singing to explain what is going on: “They don’t know their language, they don’t know their God.” The song dissolves into humming keyboards as a male voice rants for a minute and a half: “We know the air is unfit to breathe and the food is unfit to eat. . . . I want you to get angry!” After a minute, you realize that it doesn’t just sound like Peter Finch’s rant from “Network”; it is that rant, but with a new score, something like the Art Ensemble of Chicago locked in a room with Brian Eno. Badu has promised that the second volume of “New Amerykah” will be more emotional, which could be just as good. For the moment—a deeply apolitical moment in R. & B.—we should simply be grateful that a verified pop star has quietly brought politics and noise back into black pop.