Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Soldiering On

Michael McCall

By Singer takes soul into the next millennium

July 14, 1997:  For the most part, new artists mining the classic soul sound have relied more on style than on substance. The slow-baked soft funk of Tony Rich, D'Angelo, Maxwell, and the underrated Rahsaan Patterson comes across as compelling, silky, and seductive. But on their initial efforts, each of these performers displays little in the way of personality or distinctive songwriting. The grooves, familiar yet fresh, suck a listener in. The songs, meanwhile, don't offer much beyond luxurious arrangements and lightweight romanticism.

With Erykah Badu, however, the young soul movement has its first true artist--and its biggest success story. Rather than following a formula, Badu has forged her own musical and lyrical identity, one that's rich in character, nuance, and intellect. She still shares some notable similarities with her contemporaries, but she also reaches beyond superficial romantic themes, using her music to convey a strong sense of herself and of the world around her. She's the first new artist to comprehend that black music of the '60s was based on heart and nerve as well as on soul and love.

This new movement needed someone like Badu more than she needed it. As represented on her million-selling debut, Baduizm, hers is the kind of talent that would draw attention in any era, no matter what the trends happened to be. Coming as she does during a wave of slow-groove sounds, she'll likely help bring the tide to a crest. She's that good, and she could well be that important.

Badu, who performs as part of the talent-rich Smokin' Grooves tour July 15 at Starwood Amphitheatre, comes from Dallas, Texas. Her geographic origins might help explain how she managed to develop such a full-blown artistic persona without falling under the control of a Svengali-like producer--one of the primary blanding agents in modern pop music. On the East Coast and the West Coast, young talents often get pressed into commercially successful sounds before they've even had time to develop their individuality. The music reflects the personality of the producer more than that of the artist; singers are ultimately interchangeable.

But Badu knew who she was, what she wanted to say, and what she wanted to sound like before she ever stepped into a New York recording studio. A product of Dallas' acclaimed Booker T. Washington High School (whose graduates include jazz trumpeter Ray Hargrove and singer Sandra St. Victor), Badu grew up studying drama and dance. But she is anything but a pampered arts child. Her father left the family while Badu was young, and unconfirmed reports have said that he's in prison. The singer calls her mother her best friend, yet she acknowledges that her godmother, an actor and drama teacher named Gwen Hargrove, was responsible for much of her upbringing.

After high school, Badu began pursuing music as a career. She rose through the ranks in Texas, where she opened major concerts for touring acts. A 1995 show warming up for D'Angelo was her career break. Kedar Massenburg, then D'Angelo's manager, caught Badu's performance and approached her backstage. Even though Massenburg ended up introducing her to the powers-that-be, he didn't interfere with her visionary ideas--nor did her label. From the high-standing African headwraps to the political/social lyrics, the artistry is all Badu.

Looking forward Erykah Badu, riding the crest of the current soul wave. Photo by Mark Baptiste.

The singer is most often compared to Billie Holiday, but the similarities have more to do with the quality and texture of her voice than with the direction of her music. She has the same reedy, childlike voice as Lady Day, and she relaxes just as easily into the rhythm. Unlike Holiday, however, there's nothing vulnerable or pained in Badu's manner, nothing tragic or fragile in her persona. Her sound has more in common with Minnie Riperton (without the multi-octave voice) or The Emotions, but with plenty of modern flavor. She updates old-school grooves with a resonant, jazz-inflected bass, craftily assembled cymbal taps and brushes, rhythmically repeating lyrics, and chanted choruses.

The rich, sensuous lope of Badu's music seduces the listener quickly, but it also goes for something deeper. "On and On," the singer's first hit, broaches her interest in the Nation of Islam and her belief in its 5 Percent Nation theory--the idea that 5 percent of the population is blessed with an understanding of the self and of spirituality. Badu couches her lyrics in everyday language, blending in Nation of Islam concepts about mathematics, physics, and knowledge and code words like "cipher," "mothership," and "vultures." In the end, though, the gentle lull of the rhythm and Badu's prideful manner put the song across.

Badu's two follow-up singles more securely establish her artistic standing. "Next Lifetime" begins with a good friend whispering an aggressive come-on to her. The singer is taken by it, but she's already involved in a relationship. She conveys the complexity of her feelings, none of them simple or easy to express. She's obviously attracted to the man, and she wondrously describes both the electricity that travels between them and the tug-of-war that rages within her. "Your energy feels so damn good to me," she purrs at one point. "It picks me up, don't want to come down, got me spinnin' all around." As heady and tempting as his advances feel, her mindful sense of right wins out over her emotions. "I know I'm a lot of woman," she concludes, "but not enough to divide the pie." She turns him down, suggesting that maybe in the next lifetime they'll meet again and the circumstances will be different.

The album's strongest song is Badu's current hit, "Otherside of the Game." Written from the point of view of a hustler's wife who discovers that she's pregnant, the song describes a woman forced to face the reality of her situation. True to Badu's sensibilities, it's complicated portrait that neither glorifies nor condemns. The lyrics alternate between a conversation the woman is having with her man and the thoughts running through her mind. "Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?" she asks her husband, while the chorus echoes, "Work ain't honest but it pays the bills."

The woman asks him if she should keep their baby, but it's evident that she wants to raise the child and build a life with the man she loves. At the same time, she's rightly concerned about his "complex occupation," as she puts it. "Now, I'm not saying that this life don't work," she observes, "but it's me and baby that he hurts. Cause I tell him right, he thinks I'm wrong, but I love him strong." The song never comes to a resolution. Badu only conveys the woman's confusion and her desire for dignity, in the process painting a disturbingly realistic picture of life in an urban underworld where drugs, guns, and crime are the norm. There may be plenty of hip-hop songs that glorify the gangsta lifestyle, but "Otherside of the Game" presents a rare, honest glimpse into the harsh, confusing realities of life for many people living in America's inner cities.

On her three radio hits alone, Badu's scope is as ambitious as it is broad. Over the course of an entire album, she succeeds in doing something few other artists can: She bluntly and openly discusses the verities of life while wrapping her observations in smooth, comforting tones. She makes her music and her themes accessible and universal, talking about a need to teach, to motivate, and to heal. As pop music's brightest new star, she's ready to head American culture in that direction.

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