(100) Days of Soundtrack: #39 – Erykah Badu – Baduizm

Erykah Badu was someone who, when she first came out, was a challenge to my younger mind. Having grown up on rock and roll, anything more soul inflected, anything marketed as hip-hop or r&b, was a challenge, to be fair. It was foreign and spoke to a musical world I had not embraced. It was frequently speaking of a world I, as a young teen, had no experience with. The fact is that I still am apart from there, and I’m not remotely the most detached of those I’ve known from that era. It was, therefore, already difficult to buy into any new artist in a popular music spectrum that insisted that race determined style, but Badu was harder to grasp because of her more reserved delivery, as well. Her big single was reserved in ways her contemporaries were not, and if much of the mid-90s in r&b was about big ballads and sexy dance tracks, that sort of thing seemed to fit nowhere, especially in a head already predisposed to less familiarity with the genre. Yet as it often does, time changes much. As I got older, Badu’s brilliant piece of snark, “Tyrone,” became a go-to, a stunning tell-off that manages to be both mature and measured while also spitting appropriate venom: it’s a real human singing a real experience, as opposed to the posturing of an “Irreplaceable” or worse, a “Before He Cheats.” I heard Macy Grey, who my head always linked to Erykah Badu for some reason, go from being a gawky one-hit wonder with one of the most oppressive of omnipresent songs to fronting a blues track where that voice finally made sense. I was peripherally aware of more and more well-reviewed albums under Badu’s belt, and also more and more open to bringing in new influences. I was actually excited when her name was mentioned in the context of this project: all the more reason to go back and figure out what she’s all about. With fresher and more matured ears, the thing which makes Baduizm so different, and possibly also what makes Badu herself so much more appealing, is much clearer now than it was then. The framing device of “Rim Shot” puts this album firmly in a jazz context as opposed to an R&B one, not only for the style of the intro/outro, but also for the titular drum technique. Genres blend to start with, so to call anything purely one genre is a fool’s errand, but it’s nevertheless surprising to not have expected this. The phrasing on “On and On,” her first single, is clearly more of a jazz phrasing. The downtempo beat definitely helps it flow in the modern soul context it was put into on the radio, but re-listening to the track now, it has much more in common with the classic. The inflections throughout make it even more obvious, from the ooh-eees and other vocal additions to the scat-tinged lyrical delivery. The chords formed by the keys are warm, and the muted trumpets feel like a reserved big band.  Badu’s voice is an equally muted and smooth brass. It’s all there in that first single, so yeah, it’s embarrassing to not have expected this nearly 20 years later. What I don’t think I would have expected in any context, however, are the number of slow burns on the album: 5 of the tracks here are over 5 minutes long, and three of those are more than 6. Of these, only “Next Lifetime” feels like it could be truncated, which is odd as it’s also the best of the bunch. “No Love” deals in a funky backbeat and exit improv, while “Other Side of the Game” just reclines across the track, taking up its space with its slow, leisurely progress. Through them all, Badu keeps her instrument regulated, and her improvisation is that of a vocalist, not that of a diva bellowing and shrieking runs at their highest register. It keeps the songs moving at their pace, but never at a pace too slow to be appreciated. On the other hand, even the interludes and the framework of “Rim Shot” take themselves seriously musically. “Sometimes” is less than a minute of music, a prelude to its full-scale reprise later on, but it is set up like a full track would be even in that small snippet. “Afro” might otherwise be a throwaway, feeling like it is coming together improvisationally as though it was a pickup game of hoops, but there’s something unforgettable about it. Badu starts a cappella, and her accompaniment starts feeling its way into the track: we legitimately hear the track come to life, like a time lapse video of a flower blooming. It’s always telling when an artist can take the least of their songs and elevate even these. Through it all, we also have a musical dialog which feels more grown up than a lot of the MTV fodder across genres at the time, likely one more reason it felt inaccessible back then. “Next Lifetime” tackles the real human emotion of love… not the sterile sort, but the experience of falling for someone you cannot have because you’re already in love, and the conflict that creates in our society. She questions her desires, but never seems to be ashamed, refuses to fully give her other love up, promising him the next go around the sun, if they’re granted it. “On and On” is a classic reflection on how life, well, goes on. The hard working figure Badu represented in her video still sticks with me as that song goes. As for musical themes, some pull from one track to the next: “On and On” features again in “Appletree,” while “Appletree” has its “ooh-eee-oooh”s echoed in “4 Leaf Clover” and “No Love.” Numerous tracks revisit as well: “Sometimes” gets the full song treatment later in the album, while “Certainly” gets both an original rendition and a “Flipped It” rendition.  With a back end loaded with these reprises, the album does seem like it could have been a bit more tightly edited, a little less long. The end result, however, is a solid blend of R&B and Jazz that is totally worth an hour of one’s time, and which manages to surprise while also not really breaking ground. If only the brilliant live-album-only track “Tyrone” was included here, it would be a pretty damn essential album.

Alex Lupica (@Alex_Soundtrack) has been in love with music since he was a toddler, despite its infidelities. (Really, music? Nu-metal? How could you!). Alex is Editor-in-Chief at The Daily Soundtrack.

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