In retrospect, it seems obvious that Erykah Badu was never destined to become a traditional R&B star.
It wasn’t necessarily apparent at the start of her career. Rising to prominence in the late 1990s, the Dallas native fused socially conscious ’70s soul with hip-hop and a flair for the avant-garde, selling 3 million copies of her debut “Baduizm.” Alternating between radio-friendly singles and collaborations with hip-hop groups Outkast and the Roots, Badu somehow managed to bring both the scowlingest of rap fans and the more easily spooked adult-contemporary crowd into the same big tent.
But there were certainly signs of her militant iconoclasm, starting with her undisguised contempt for the mainstream concessions (both musical and sartorial) that aspiring female stars are expected to make. In the new millennium, she suffered a prolonged case of writer’s block, remaining silent save for an outing she knowingly dubbed the “Frustrated Artist Tour.” In a genre singularly unforgiving to faltering stars, she seemed to have fallen off completely.
Industry watchers were thus justified in their surprise when Badu’s “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War),” released in February, entered the charts at No. 2 and quickly went gold — especially considering that the music contained therein (much of it recorded by Badu in her home, using Mac’s GarageBand program) rivals Radiohead for sheer sonic eccentricity.
Lyrically, the record is a heady blend of street reportage and Five Percenter mysticism, punctuated by hallucinatory imagery. Musically, it largely dismisses traditional song structures for a stream of adventurous grooves and haunting samples.
Even the willfully obscurantist music nerds at Pitchfork noted of “New Amerykah”: “This one we even waited a while to review; perhaps we were giving ourselves time to wrap our heads around it.”
She has two more albums due before the end of the year.
Badu’s recent tour led the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones to compare her Radio City Music Hall performance to such cultural flashpoints as Dylan at Newport in ’65, adding that she is “both of her moment and channeling so many forces that her work spills out over the edges of history and stops time.”
The most important issue facing Americans in this election year: “Where there are no choices, there is no progress. Children end up in prison, end up in blood, because of the lack of choices,” she said to the Dallas Morning News in February.
Career mantra: “I’ve always wanted the best for the people in my life,” she told Blender in March. “Except for Bombita: She was in the fifth grade with me. And she can die.”