I first saw Erykah Badu last year in Amsterdam at the old church that is Paradiso. I finished work at 6pm, rode my bike to the doors, and waited out front with the handful of diehard fans itching to get front and centre. Doors didn’t open till 8.30pm but as soon as they did, I assumed my position and waited to see my generation’s queen of neo-soul, right before my eyes.
Seven months later and we’re about to see her in all her grandeur, within the walls of Sydney’s Opera House.
One of the most versatile songstresses to bless global music, Erykah Badu has made her way down under for the second year in a row, with shows across Australia and New Zealand. According to the hype, she’s got a seventh album in the works, and with over seven million album sales in the United States alone, it’s an understatement to suggest that she’s got a committed fan base, no doubt due to her consistent innovation, passion and exquisite inner and outer style.
One of the most forward-thinking and creative artists in music today, Badu is a fantastic mix of unconventional yet unapologetic womanhood; she is a leader on one truly evolutionary path. It’s with poise and grace that Ms Badu has forged her own path in soul music. An iconoclast in what has become neo-soul genre, she has remained a significant force in hip-hop, contemporary R&B, jazz and funk since she burst into our lives 15 years ago with the release of her first album, Baduizm. If you don’t have it, get it – and pick up Mama’s Gun while you’re at it. They’re the sorts of albums you’ll be passing down through generations, much like Nina Simone’s It Is Finished and ‘Nuff Said! were before.
In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Steve Baltin prior to Boston’s Rock the Bells festival, she discussed her own expectations of herself. "As a performance artist, in the spirit of Yoko Ono, in the spirit of Josephine Baker, in the spirit of Nina Simone, I know what kind of reaction I expect or want to get. I know when the audience and the artist become one living-breathing organism. It's happened a couple of times, but I want it to happen all the time."
Badu calls herself an “analogue girl in a digital world”, but she totally gets this world we live in. As she offered in an interview with the New Zealand Herald’s, David Carroll, "The Mayans said in 2012 there would be a shift…, and I think it co-relates with what's going on with the planet. Because we are earthlings, very much connected with the planet, made of the same carbon and hydrogen and oxygen as the planet's made of, it's quite natural for us to behave the same way – it's a recalibration… We're evolving as a race and as a planet, and I do hope there's some sort of rebirth – but not without the labour pains first."
Her two recent albums, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008) and New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) (2010), are very different but the evolutionary road is audibly there. Having written both parts during the same period, Part One is more of a burst of frustration, broiling emotion and energy – “sociological, analytical, left brain molecular,” she explained to Scott Kara of NZ Herald. Where as Part Two takes you on a profoundly beautiful and heartfelt journey – “More of a right brain, feminine and emotional nature.” Both are uniquely and equally exquisite.
Ms Badu has recently been working alongside the likes of the Gorillaz, Flying Lotus and the Robert Glasper Experiment on a project called Black Radio, in which they released the smoothest jazz track of 2012, Afro Blue. Look out for the release of this album on February 28 featuring collaborations with various artists other than Ms Badu, such as Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, KING, Lalah Hathaway and more.
The latest track to grace the Internet-airwaves that bears Badu’s hauntingly beautiful vocals is the atmospheric and experimental lullaby Now I Understand, a collaborative track by The Flaming Lips also featuring Biz Markie and Apple iPhone’s Siri. Check it here:
Erykah Badu plays the Sydney Opera House this Sunday February 19.