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Erykah Badu is the type of sister who can blow onstage, locks veiled under 4 feet of multicolored headwrap, rocking a full-length wool coat, and still get every man in the audience open. Yeah, her, the one with the rail-thin arms and world-absorbing eyes. Badu is the kind of vocalist who can issue fluent scat phrases that come off like treasured syllables from some long-forgotten tongue. She’s simple, like calculus. Said scatress is the central figure in, and most devout practitioner of, Baduizmher personal spin on the world as well as the title of her 14-track debut.
Dig, 94 years after W.E.B. Du Bois first caught wind of the fact that black people in this country have a double consciousness, that split-personality thing rages on, unreconciled and resurfacing at every juncture in black culture. See, from the get-go, those first Africans shackled to this country figured out that degradation left unchanneled was poisonous to the soul.
The music they created was the sound of them flipping the script, alchemizing beauty from pain and incorporating everything around them into a mélange. Everything. And even though they could find balm in rhythms a thousand times older than the word “slave,” it ain’t like they came out of that ordeal unscathed. So it should come as no surprise that the musics that have come out of that experience have had the power to raise or raze our level of understanding. Suffice it to say that with the notable exception of newcomers like Dionne Farris and Sandra St. Victor, the most profound R&B has been generated overseas (Sade, Des’ree, Caron Wheeler, etc.) leaving us to inherit airwaves full of assembly-line triteness.
And that is precisely where Baduizm comes in. Badu is to her contemps as leather is to vinyl. Lyrically, Badu is a soothsayer offering her own brand of homespun wisdom and speaking on life’s simple complexities. On tracks like the 5-percent inspired “On & On,” she waxes metaphysical with lines such as, “I was born under water/With three dollars and six dimes/Yeah, you may laugh/Cause you did not do your math,” while her point on “Appletree””I picks my friends like I pick my fruit”comes through with crystal clarity. She voices the baby-mother blues on “Otherside of the Game,” the pointed lament of a woman whose man is trapped in work that “ain’t honest but…pays the bills.” Badu muses over loves lost and found throughout the CD, but her wanderings are resolutely anti-cliché and usually manage to segue into wider discussions of the world around her.
Musically, Baduizm favors slow tempos, murmuring bass lines, and subtle keys. Her extended family includes Philly freestylists the Roots, and Badu defers to her clan for production on the airtight “Otherside.” Throughout, she handles the backup vocals herself, establishing that she ain’t in need of a chorus of Baduists to handle her business.
On more than one level, Baduizm is a wedding of the ancestral and the here-and-now, a prologue, if you will, to the past. Case in point: the Billie Holiday issue. From the first wispy utterances ’til the final drifting note, listening to Badu is prone to conjure up thoughts of Lady Day. But although they occupy points on the same musical continuum, Badu is far more than a glorified Holiday knockoff. The latter carves a defiant, brassy edge into her sound and comes off as more transcendent than transgressed. That contrast notwithstanding, Badu’s sound is imbued with a clear blues sensibility.
The Dallas-born vocalist traded in Texas for Brooklyn, and both of those poles integrate themselves into her music. Thus her sound is equal parts dusty crossroads and busy intersections. If hiphop is the sound of the blues being filtered through time and a thousand miles of asphalt, Baduizm is the sound of hiphop reconnecting to its forebear. The CD is hiphop in its texture and themes, but elements of jazz and blues consistently drift to the foreground. Only on the comic interlude “Afro” does Badu play her hand and clue the listener in about the extent of her indigo roots.
Badu’s music is about getting by in an imperfect world and maybe even managing to get a little love while we’re here. Her vocals drift like so many wisps of incense, and if you don’t watch out, Baduizm might just redeem ya’ll heathen souls.CP