Both old school and new school, a filter for a broad range of styles and her own unique artistic voice, Erykah Badu proved Tuesday night at the Grove in Anaheim to be just the antidote to a pop paradigm plagued by “American Idolitis.” Drawing heavily from her 2008 release, “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War),” Badu mesmerized a mid-sized hall full of disciples with the velvety elasticity of her voice — which can range from a whispery purr to a primal scream — not to mention her sheer magnetism.
What sets Badu apart from her neosoul contemporaries and hip-hop brethren is a combination of social consciousness, however loonily expressed at times, and the kind of eccentricity that heightens expectation with every public appearance.
With her 10-piece band kicking things off with a 12-minute soul revue-styled prologue (“Amerykahn Promise”) that would make James Brown proud, Badu emerged from the wings in a lavender kimono, oversized sun glasses and an asymmetrical bob, launching into “The Healer,” a kind of New Age meditation on the power of hip hop to transform society. The number not only accentuates the advanced sonic sophistication “New Amerykah” represents over her previous work, but demonstrates how Badu can milk a deep groove to maximum effect. “Green Eyes,” from the 2000 release “Mama’s Gun,” might have best illustrated the parallels between Badu’s vocals and spiritual mentor Billie Holiday, but hints of reggae, smooth jazz and R&B balladering of the Luther Vandross school point to an ambition that can’t be pigeonholed.
If Badu’s model features and chic French coif made her look like Thandie Newton’s bad-ass sister, the look — every bit as important as Badu’s musical chops — created a tension between kittenish sex appeal and a take-no-prisoners brand of hip-hop self empowerment. This assertiveness was especially evident when she covered Whodini (“Friends”) and N.W.A. (“Gangsta Gangsta”), or pounded away on a drum sampler then vocally mimicked the synthetic bleeps in rat-tat-tat fashion.
During the course of her two-hour-plus set she did manage to dip back into the archives for such gems from her first LP as “Lifetime” and “On & On,” but the promise of a preview of her follow-up album “New Amerykah Part Two” turned out to be a tease (she pegged the release for Sept.), instead launching into “Soldier,” another call to arms that spans from the mean streets of the ghetto to the killing fields of Iraq.
Badu appears Friday at Club Nokia in Los Angeles.