Erykah may be late, but she's great!
by Michael Freedberg
Half an hour late, her full-house audience vocally impatient (already they'd
put aside opening act Eric Benet's modest revisions of Southern soul), Erykah
Badu took the Avalon stage last Thursday almost by surprise. In a tall tube
turban, robed white and toting a shoulder sack, lighting, upon a coffee table,
an incense candle cut in the shape of "the feminine principle," as she called
it, Badu looked less like a funky fusion jazz singer than a holder of
Swahili-language seances. But there was no Swahili, and no seance -- only an
hour's concert of the funky-hump, uppity-homegirl music she stolidly
The liquid roll of the music, the lithe riffs of her bassist, and the
architecture of her costume all brought to mind the image of Sade, an
African-born imagist who like Badu owns a high-priestess-of-soul voice in a
drop-dead body. Tinier than Sade, but more imperious, Badu was accompanied by a
jazz set-up: bass, drums, and keyboards but no guitar. She sang most of
Baduizm (Universal), her debut CD, in a voice entirely her own. She
screamed the high notes with laser intensity and droned sultry through the low
notes, sermonizing in the breaks of message songs like "On and On" and "Drama"
and howling the blues of "No Love" wordlessly. Her portfolio of
deep-blues-gospel-soul personas invites comparison with the artistry of
Cassandra Wilson, except that Badu's no improviser. A formalist in all things,
she sang the design of her songs as precisely as she wore the lines of her
costume. She sang the CD almost exactly as it was recorded: no rearrangements,
no bends in the road, no exceptions to any rule.
On stage, she stood motionless as an icon, held in place by deep feeling. This
was new. Most rhythm singers contort their bodies to demonstrate spirit
possession; in Badu's case, spirit possession riveted her to the spot.
Paralyzed her. And so she raised her soprano high up, screaming in exorcism,
invoking the spirit call in "Certainly (Flipped It)" and "Appletree," songs
that recalled Earth Wind & Fire, and squeezing the inward heart of
love-abandoned songs like "Sometimes," "Otherside of the Game," and "No Love"
out of her body bit by bit.
She certainly did stick to the script, but it was her script, even when the
mood was easy. Racy in bawdy stuff like "Rimshot" and in the recitative of the
love-me-down "Appletree," she never digressed, didn't change the tempo, didn't
put aside her shoulder sack or -- until the last songs of her set -- doff her
little green jacket. This was hardly Sade. Sade would reek of Paris and high
fashion; Badu toted an incense candle and called out to ancient Africa.
Especially Africa, as she stopped "On and On" to preach "Baduizm," which turned
out to be a kind of Afrocentric new age, a portrait of Badu's self and good
feelings. "Baduizm is not a religion," she told the Avalon audience, "but an
expression of the way I feel. Badu is me, `izm' is slang for weed. The atoms in
my body rotate on the same axis as the earth rotates. This isn't about being in
your condo: it's about being here, on the earth!"
The audience loved it; her late entry was by now long forgotten. Badu told the
crowd about being a little girl and wanting to be back-up singer for Chaka
Khan; she reprised Khan's "I'm Every Woman" and presented a few takes of Tom
Browne's 1979 fusion-dance hit "Jamaica Funk." She and her music were on a
roll, and the roll went on, for a full hour, the soft gleam of a fusion melody
rising from the keyboardist's fingers punctuated by the bassist's briefest
backbeat as Badu's sharp, nasal soprano sailed across the rhythm point to point
and from touch to touch. Hip-hop in accent and as self-possessed as the
toughest homegirl, she projected as much street wisdom as sultriness. She had
beat Sade at her own game, spinning her feelings into shapes, howls, stances,
and phrases that echoed back upon themselves -- exquisitely in tune with the
mirror-mesmerized, looking-at-myself attitudes of the profile admirers who
today command the taste of pop music.