Happy 20th Anniversary to Erykah Badu’s debut album Baduizm, originally released February 11, 1997.
In 1972, Stevie Wonder appeared on the front cover of his seminal Talking Book album dressed in a dashiki and without his trademark sunglasses on. Alongside Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), it broke the mold that Motown had spent years establishing. Gone were the sharp suits and finger snaps and in came a more individual aesthetic, allowing an Afrocentric vibe to take root in some quarters.
Fast forward 25 years to 1997 and another stylish disruptor popped up to break R&B rules once more. The prevailing image of mid ‘90s R&B female vocalists was slick, urban(e) and trashily fabulous. Oversized leather jackets, glistening straightened hair, obligatory indoor sunglasses and facial expressions set to “indifferent disdain” were the order of the day. Erykah Badu though had none of that. Angst-ridden and face hidden with a head swathed in a wrap and adorned with Afrocentric ankhs and trinkets, she looked nothing like these other artists.
Nor did she sound like them. New Jack Swing’s hip-hop beats and flashy sensibilities had reigned for a decade or so, but its appeal was wearing thin. Surging from the south came a more organic, classic soul influenced sound with the merest of nods to the sound of theintervening drum machine-driven soul of the ‘80s and ‘90s. As D’Angelo’s“Brown Sugar” erupted out of Virginia, so straight out of Brooklyn via Texas came Badu. Both shared the same musical DNA and both rejected the status quo in the strongest imaginable way.
Here in the UK, I first saw Badu on Later…With Jools Holland. In those pre-YouTube days, seeing any music that I liked was rarer than seeing an honest politician, but here she was: elegant, confident and beguiling in her gaze, all the while sipping tea as she held the crowd and me rapt with her effortless charisma. She was in our world, but to my eyes, she was not of it. Dropped among us like an intergalactic guru, she exuded a steely calm. I was sold. And I wasn’t the only one. Her debut album Baduizm went platinum three times over in the US and featured on critics’ favourite lists the world over, launching one of the most intriguing, important, and idiosyncratic careers of the last 30 years.
Looking back, it’s easy to think of Baduizm as a laid-back, jazzy affair—a feeling only heightened by the comparisons she drew at the time to the peerless Billie Holiday. But it’s easy to forget just how hard this album goes. For as much as it is more organic than the prevalent R&B of the time, the boom-clack of the snare and the relentless bass resolutely hit home throughout. It may also be the most traditional of her albums in terms of song length and structure, but to mistake this for an easy listen is to miss the point entirely. For beneath the veneer of the smooth soul sound lurk the darker corners of the human condition.
The most obviously applicable label for Badu was “earth mother.” With its talk of ciphers and cups of tea, lead single “On & On” cast her as serenely disassociated from the troubles and strife of the world, somehow able to rise above it all. “Appletree” bounces impishly with a self-affirmation that sprang from the heart of a strong, loving family. But the rest? Well, the rest was the portrait of a flawed, fallible, yet ultimately bold young woman at the beginning of a wildly adventurous journey.
“Otherside of the Game” simmers with a sultry Southern tension as Badu tells a tale of loving a man from the wrong side of the tracks and his “complex occupation.” It was the first song on the album to feature collaborators who would go on to be enduring players in the development of this refreshed and invigorated take on soul music (unhelpfully) dubbed “neo-soul.”
Philadelphia’s The Roots would become the lynchpin of this sound, the eye at the center of this whirlwind of creativity. Not just Badu, but Bilal, Common, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild and, of course, D’Angelo all profited from their artistry and collaboration. It was this kinship that cemented this re-upholstering of soul music during the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
It was The Roots again who drove the neck-snapping “Sometimes,” which was testament to the notion that the album went hard, despite the image projected by some critics. “Next Lifetime,” meanwhile, yearned for an answer to the question: “How can I want you for myself / When I’m already someone’s girl?” From the shy, hesitant first meeting to the morally sound resolution to see each other in the next lifetime, it describes a magnetically charged relationship that would doom all participants to pain and heartache—a deliriously told story. And so it went. The snappily disdainful delivery of “Certainly” belies the vulnerability of having been taken in by a lover, while the depiction of loving someone who doesn’t love you back on “No Love” added to the heartbreak quotient on offer.
But it is “Drama” that offers the greatest clue as to where this album places in the genealogy of soul music. With jazz legend Ron Carter playing bass (just as he had for A Tribe Called Quest’s “Verses From the Abstract”), it echoed Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” verses: “Race relations, segregation, no occupation / World inflation, demonstration, miseducation / No celebration to celebrate your lives.”
Add to that the beseeching to find God’s mercy and you have the essence of Badu—spiritual, aspirational, and wise beyond her years, just like that fierce, bright, young Stevie Wonder in 1972, all the while being infused with the hip-hop sensibilities of The Native Tongues.
With this album began a far from conventional career trajectory: children, writer’s block, service as a doula and life in general enriched the story of an artist unafraid to take risks, unwilling to compromise, and unable to live by anyone else’s expectations. What better way to forge an iconic legacy?