The image was too heavy of a burden for Erica Wright aka Erykah Badu to carry. Looking back at it all, the alluring (and at times confounding) singer-songwriter’s seismic-shift of a debut Baduizm, was the kind of overpowering statement that could crush a career faster than you could whisper the cautionary name of Lauryn Hill.
“The concept did so well and the image that I created for myself was so broad, it was bigger than I was,” she once told me of the enveloping fame that proceeded the album that transformed her into an international R&B icon. “When I took the head wrap and set it beside me, it was bigger than me.”
Indeed, Baduizm’s to-the-bone, rhythm-and blues-has-a-baby-with-jazz sonics, brazen mix of Five-Percent Nation dogma and Afrocentric Egyptology mysticism was so potent that it gave birth to a new sound: Neo Soul. If D’Angelo is credited with bringing R&B back to the confines of its stripped-down roots with his equally impactful 1995 introduction Brown Sugar, Badu took it to an otherworldly level.
And to think that fledgling producer and future music mogul Kedar Massenburg signed the eccentric Dallas, Texas native to a recording deal only after she was turned down by everyone from Bad Boy to Sony Records. In honor of the 20th anniversary of the landmark Baduizm, BET ranks every track on this indespensible work. Light up some incense and vibe, children.
Just Badu, future Roots keyboardist extrodinaire James Poyser and the crew messing around with the blues. It may be tempting to label this good-natured ribbing of iconic drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s signature round coiffure as a joke. But there’s actually something going on here in this ode to juke joint revelry, complete with a sly shot-out to the Wu-Tang Clan.
Leave it to Badu to cover this underrated 1983 quiet storm gem from ‘80s R&B band, Atlantic Starr. The groove swings more than saunters driven by a confident vocal performance that never strays too far from the original.
“Race relations, segregation, no occupation/World inflation, demonstration, miseducation…” Yes, this socially conscious examination of a world in turmoil is a slight nod to Marvin Gaye’s scathing “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” But Badu manages to inject a little more hope into the mix (“But you’re still living…”).
We can go on and on about how this brief, in-pocket, percussive exercise deserved to be stretched out into a complete work. Whimsical jazz scatting, floating harmonies, and an hypnotizing knock that dares you not to bob your head.
Hell hath no fury like a Badu scorned. However, most of said fury is self-inflicted. Not so much a bitter break-up song, but a melancholy, and at times, angry trial on a relationship derailed by a lack of tenderness. If you listen carefully enough you can hear Badu cleverly cutting a line from Stevie Wonder’s “I Love You Too Much.”
Badu comes close to outdoing the original version. This is a remix in every sense of the word from its breezy interpolation of Kool & The Gang’s sample-heavy “Summer Madness” to its harder boom bap instincts. It works.
Is it a dysfunctional love affair or a front row seat to a painful breakup? Whatever it is, it’s funky as all hell.
Evidently, you can’t cage Badu (“Who told you it was alright to love me?). You have to set her free. The track with the most noticeable imprint (the upright acoustic bass pulls you in) isn’t afraid to go into lush Sarah Vaughn territory.
Baduizm’s most uptempo cut lays out the ambitious songstress’ maverick mantra: “I don't go 'round trying to be what I'm not/I don't waste my time trying to get what you got…” Badu is quite feisty here as she draws a line in the sand, following an unpredictable, challenging muse that will guide her for the next 20 plus years.
Who has time for regrets? On this soulful, sexy journey, Badu lets it be known that to an interested crush that while intrigued by the notion, she’s a one-man woman. The solution? There’s more than enough time to meet up in reincarnated form.
This is what separates Badu from the rest of her color-inside-the-lines Neo Soul brethren. On this brilliantly humanizing tale of a drug dealer, the supportive wife and mother isn’t so much glamorizing street life. She’s dealing with the institutional cards she was dealt. Yes, that’s the mighty Roots’ backing up Badu’s flawless vox over a gorgeous Fender Rhodes, which hits its tear-inducing target.
Where to start? The sly Audio 2 kick off; the stirring Billie Holiday-like phrasing; Five-Percent Nation ideology (“Most intellects do not believe in God but they fear us just the same…”); the charismatic mystique. This is the sound of a star being born right before our ears. Badu’s dynamic songwriting sucks you into a place that never allows you to take the easy way out. New age jazz that the ancestors would be proud of.
(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)