The Mind of a One-Woman Multitude
By MELENA RYZIK
“This is my museum,” the R&B singer Erykah Badu says of her apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She also lives part of the time in Dallas, where she was born.
Michael Nagle for The New York Times
THE day after she finished her new album at Electric Lady Studios, the West Village recording shrine that Jimi Hendrix built, the multiplatinum R&B singer Erykah Badu was back in her surprisingly modest apartment in Brooklyn, puttering. In the tiny kitchen she poured organic pomegranate juice into a jelly jar, then stretched out on a mattress on the floor as “New AmErykah, Part One (4th World War),” just released by Universal Motown, played on her laptop. After weeks in the studio, she was so happy to be home that she refused to leave, rescheduling appointments and interviews around her domestic whim and one really, really good bath. (More on that later.)
She patted the spot next to her; why not conduct an interview in bed?
“This is my museum,” Ms. Badu, 37, said of the rent-controlled one-bedroom in Fort Greene where she has lived on and off since coming to New York, demo tape in hand, 11 years ago from her native Dallas, where she was Erica Wright.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve had two children, a few boyfriends, a lot of records,” she continued in her slight, girly drawl. “Everyone that comes over here draws on the wall or leaves something. You’re looking at my mind when you’re looking at these things.” Decorating the hallway, for instance, is a three-foot-tall ankh; artwork by her 10-year-old son, Seven, underneath a magazine photo of his father, the rapper André Benjamin of OutKast; yellow caution tape; dried flowers; protest-style placards; and a metal trash can lid, hung on the wall like an art piece. (“I thought it was cute,” she said.)
As idiosyncratic as the memorabilia on her walls, her first full-length album in eight years is a dense, stylistic mash-up. By turns overtly political and intensely personal, with 1970s-groove instrumentation, hip-hop phrasing and a roster of beats and samples from collaborators like the D.J. and producer Madlib, it is fierce but weird. And apart from “Honey,” the bouncy, playful single, it is largely uncommercial. In his review for The New York Times, Ben Ratliff called it “a deep, murky swim in her brain.”
But after such a prolonged absence its release still feels like a comeback event. Thanks to Ms. Badu’s appealingly eccentric neo-soul sex goddess/funky earth mama/black power revolutionary persona, her pipe cleaner of a voice, thin and bendy, her sultry delivery and beauty, she’s still a potentially bankable star. (The designer Tom Ford recently named her the face of his forthcoming fragrance.) And with R&B sales down 18 percent last year, the industry seems willing to take a risk on an independent-minded artist, especially one with a following.
“I think Erykah is one of the few artists that truly does have a movement,” said Sylvia Rhone, the president of Universal Motown. “Her music has changed, but she’s been feeding people this creative change all these years, and she’s stayed very connected with her fan base,” through live performances, online groups and other projects like acting in movies. She added that while Janet Jackson’s new record may outsell hers at Best Buy and Target, “Erykah will dominate at the independent record stores.”
After a public bout of writer’s block that led to her “Frustrated Artist” tour in 2003 and 2004, Ms. Badu is eager to promote what she calls her magnum opus. “New AmErykah” is part of a creative torrent that includes a sequel record, due in the summer, and an unrelated retro-minded album, “Lowdown Loretta Brown,” scheduled for the fall, both on Universal Motown. Ms. Badu also plans to start a lifestyle magazine, The Freaq, this summer; the first issue will come with a copy of “New AmErykah: Part Two.” Both records will also be available on a U.S.B. stick for fans to plug into their computers; for added value Ms. Badu wants to record a U.S.B. commentary track to explain her references and inspiration. A tour will start in May.
“I swear to God, this must be my artistic peak,” Ms. Badu said in an earlier interview at Electric Lady, where she walked around barefoot, belled anklets jingling above her tiny manicured feet. “I hope my sexual peak comes soon too,” she added, and laughed. Then, switching to bohemian mama mode: “If something happened to me, I would want them to say, ‘This is what your mother was about.’ ”
Ms. Badu is “one of those performers that don’t necessarily fit in,” said Stephen Hill, executive vice president for music talent and programming at BET, which has been aggressively playing the video for “Honey.” “She creates music as she wants to, and then it’s up to the public to decide.” He added that the new album was “not like anything that’s out there, and that’s what makes it exciting,” especially when the mainstream music business feels slack.
Of course Ms. Badu already had a legacy to build on. Her debut album, “Baduizm,” released in 1997, sold nearly three million copies, winning her two Grammys and comparisons to Billie Holiday, Diana Ross and Chaka Khan. By the time her follow-up, “Mama’s Gun,” was released in 2000, she had earned a title: the queen of neo-soul. And she was part of an era of left-of-center black singer-songwriters like Jill Scott, Angie Stone and Macy Gray; her male counterparts included D’Angelo and Maxwell. Like Ms. Badu many of them struggled to keep their creative momentum, conflicted about their early mainstream success.
“I think most of us went through our psychosomatic, quasi-self-saboteur stage,” said ?uestlove, the drummer for the Philadelphia group the Roots and a member of what he called the Soulquarian scene, which flourished in the late ’90s and included Ms. Badu and other socially conscious acts like Talib Kweli and Common.
“Once we got that first taste of success, I think just the pressure of reacting got to all of us. Some of us released some of the craziest records of our career,” and some, like D’Angelo, retreated altogether, he said. As Ms. Badu’s popularity exploded, there was a backlash, he said. Her hair, her love life, her mystical beliefs all came into question. “Is she real or is she fake, is she pretentious?” he said. “She was thrown off.”
Suffering from writer’s block and plagued by self-doubt — “I felt like a failure,” Ms. Badu said — she soured on being the queen of neo-soul. “I hated that because what if I don’t do that anymore?” she said. “What if I change? Then that puts me in a penitentiary.”
She took time off to care for her two children — she also has a daughter, Puma, 3, with the rapper D.O.C. (Her kids’ beds, mattresses on the floor, are feet away from hers in her Brooklyn living room. The family mostly lives in a house in Dallas.) Meanwhile the music industry entered the digital age, and Ms. Badu, a self-described “analog girl in a digital world,” was in danger of being left behind.
But in 2004 ?uestlove gave her a computer — her first — for Christmas. She chatted online with producer friends like him, Q-Tip and J Dilla, and they began to bombard her with music. “Everybody sending me these things, saying, ‘Erykah, come on, we want you back, we need you to do this,’ ” Ms. Badu said.
Her son introduced her to GarageBand, the music-making program for Macs, and she was off. With the laptop, “I could be here, in my own space, with headphones on, and the kids could be doing what they doing, and I’m cooking dinner still, I’m making juices still, and it’s so easy just to sing,” she said. “You got an idea — boom! Idea, boom!”
In about a year she wrote more than 75 songs, many of which she split among the three albums. Lyrically “New AmErykah” is charged by a rambling political fervor and a level of introspection that were only hinted at in her previous work. There is hard-boiled speechifying laced with Nation of Islam exultations and occasional clarity. (On “M,” she gives a succinct autobiography: “Had two babies different dudes/ thought for them both my love was true/ that’s just me,” she sings. “Will I escape this vanity/or will I keep on smoking trees?”) Guest musicians include the jazz vibraphonist Roy Ayers and the Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. Ms. Badu said she did not have a sound in mind for the “New AmErykah” records. “I’m just giving my testimony,” she said.
The inventive video for “Honey” shows her image inserted into more than a dozen classic album covers, from the Beatles’ “Let It Be” to De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising,” with hairstyles to match. (She makes a particularly convincing Grace Jones.) She conceived it herself, she said, a fitting choice for someone with an ever-evolving, outsize style. The bedroom in her apartment serves mostly as a storage space for a tangle of costumes and Afro wigs (her look for the new album). During the two interviews she once wore a pair of Carol Channingesque black glasses (sans lenses) and once had fake freckles drawn on her cheeks, and never looked any less stunning.
“You know, you cannot look Erykah Badu directly in the eye,” Mr. Hill said. “She will suck you in, and you just want to follow her and make sure everything works out for her.”
?uestlove agreed. When Ms. Badu arrived in Philadelphia to record in the late ’90s, “I noticed that our entire community suddenly wanted to pay us a visit,” he said. “It was like everyone she met fell in love with her within five minutes.”
“We thought we was gonna be fighting each other” over her, he added.
Ms. Badu wouldn’t say who she’s dating now, but “I haven’t been single since I was 5,” she said. “Ego has to have a boyfriend.”
As mystical as Ms. Badu’s interests are — ancient Egypt, which she calls Kemet, astrology and the power of positive thinking, á la “The Secret” — she is equally grounded in the realities of the contemporary music business.
“I know Erykah Badu is a brand,” she said. “And I try to make sure that I’m on point with that — every part of me. I’m healthy. I make sure I’m at the meeting. I try to be on time.”
“Try” may be the operative word. Her publicist, working at a computer nearby, looked up skeptically when she said this. “Carla, keep typing,” Ms. Badu said mock-authoritatively. She smiled and added, “Hey, procrastination is living.”
As her publicist no doubt knew, on the morning of the interview Ms. Badu’s procrastination included a Very Important and Much-Delayed Bath. It was so relaxing and emotionally potent — she talked about it in response to a question about finding her spirituality — that it led to the cancellation of a photo shoot and other meetings.
“I hadn’t been away from that studio, girrrl — I was using the funk,” she said. “That’s why you hear it, I was so funky.”
As she floated in the tub (“I always go all the way underneath the water and try to hold my breath a long time,” she said), she had a revelation: “Different thoughts kept coming into my head. The first thought was, ooh, I wonder if my hair gonna be cute when I get out. And then another voice over me said, Ego, we need you, we’re going to need you for our mission. And another voice over my head goes, oh, Willpower, bless your heart, you’re going to be stronger soon. And then another voice — oh Heart, you’re so compassionate, you have to toughen up a little.
“I figured out, like, wow, all of these things in me are fighting to have a space all the time, and it’s like a dialogue going on inside of me all the time.”
Ms. Badu is certain her fans are now ready to hear it. “Being humble is so 2007,” she said. “Trust me.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company