'‘I’ve never had another year like 1997. That was the year for me,” says Erykah Badu, leaning back into her seat as she observes the audience at a 2011 RBMA lecture in Madrid. “That was the year where the music was recognised and appreciated. 'Baduzim' was that one.’'
Ripping up the R&B rulebook and pioneering a fresh perspective with her debut album ‘Baduzim’, Erykah Badu’s success in 1997 is a masterclass in authenticity for aspiring artists to this day. Simultaneously experimental and timeless, it is a comforting, melanin-rich blend of genres. Taking the neo-soul movement to the next level along with the breakthroughs of artists like D’Angelo and Maxwell, the album had a ripple effect on the music world from bohemian afrocentric artists to the biggest mainstream artists on the planet.
A Dallas native, Erykah Abi Wright, grew up an arts enthusiast. Having attended theatre school and college, she left in 1993, aged 22, to invest all of her energy into music. As well as soaking in the strong blues influence of her hometown and her uncle’s collection of funk music, Badu was also heavily influenced by contemporary hip-hop and initially set out to become a rapper.
And it was during her time working with producer cousin, Robert ‘Free’ Bradford, as rap outfit “Erykah Free” that she’d whimsically record her first sung track ‘Appletree’. Followed by ‘On and On’, the songs would eventually set the tone for her debut, and garnered enough local interest to get a support slot for Notorious B.I.G and Mobb Deep. “I was a writer more than a vocalist, a lyricist, and I guess that developed along with it,” she revealed during the Madrid lecture. Her bluesy tones reflective of Billie Holiday flourished later; though she hung onto the poetic twists and flows of the hip-hop that would lace itself throughout her career.
'Baduzim' fused R&B and hip-hop in a way that hadn't happened before; with an observant, mediative stream of words, like gazing out from the window seat on a lengthy journey. At the height of hip-hop’s Shiny Suit Era, with Puff Daddy’s influence finding rappers and singers at their most braggadocios, Erykah’s transient commentary about the world around her provided a much-needed breath of fresh air. With her iconic head wraps and the African drums that weave their way throughout the record, her evident pride in heritage provided a stripped back minimalist step away from the mainstream.
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‘Appletree', the first song written for the album back in 1993, is a flagship example of the confidence in Erykah's unapologetically honest depiction of the African-American experience.
“See I picks my friends like I pick my fruit,
And Ganny told me that when I was only a youth,
I don't go 'round trying to be what I'm not,
I don't waste my time trying ta get what you got.”
These words of wisdom resonated with impressionable young people of colour growing up in a predominantly white world, the nonchalant tone in which Erykah delivers these words of assurance providing the voice that many never knew they needed to hear. Critical reviews at the time also praised the record for Badu’s refreshing perspective: “‘Baduzim' showcases the heart and soul of a bohemian B-girl who happens to have an effortless jazz swing,” wrote Rolling Stone. Entertainment Weekly reaffirming, “'when a new artist sings the blues without pop-driven gimmicks, she can’t miss. Erykah Badu’s nouvelle-soul debut, 'Baduzim', hits the target, blows it up, reinvents it.”
Although there is an intimate and personal feel to the delivery, 'Baduzim' lacks a self-centred or specific rhetoric, allowing open ends to cater to listeners own experiences. However, those clued up on Ms Badu’s personal life may be able to fill in the blanks.
Erykah's personal life has forever been intertwined with her artistic career; there is a fruitful synergy between the two. Now the mother of three children, throughout the promotional period of 'Baduzim' she was pregnant with her first, Seven, the son she shares with Outkast’s André 3000. The pair met in 1995 in a New York bar where ‘On & On’ was playing. The iconic image of their union is wrapped up in the albums prose; Andre even co-starred in the video for 'Otherside of the Game’, in which the viewer becomes a fly on the wall in their apartment.
Succeeding the release of 'Baduzim', a live version was released Autumn of the same year. This extended edition featured covers including Chaka Khan’s 'Stay’ and the classic ‘All Night Long’ by The Mary Jane Girls, but most importantly it included the release of ‘Tyrone’, originally an improvised live skit which became one of Erykah’s biggest hits.
Considering the time period of these performances tied in with real life logistics, the ease at which lyrics like “I’m getting tired of yo shit, you don’t ever buy me nothin’’ and ‘’Why can’t we be by ourselves sometimes, I been having this on my mind for a long time” suspicions arose that this could be the start of trouble in paradise for her and André. “The song wasn’t about me and that ain’t my name,” he’d later spit with a hint of guilt on the autobiographical ‘A Life In The Day Of Benjamin André (Incomplete)’.
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It is no secret the effect Erykah has on men both musically and culturally - the change in dress sense of her next boyfriend, Common, is evidence of that. While ‘Baduizm’ was being recorded, their relationship was beginning to flourish in the form of friendship.
“I was with Kim and Erykah was with André 3000. Erykah and Kim were pregnant at the same time. All of that create space for our friendship to grow without being overwhelmed by passion,” he confesses in his 2012 autobiography ‘One Day It’ll All Make Sense’. “My heart felt good when we were together. But from the look of things we looked destined to become one of those love affairs that never happened. We looked destined to walk separate paths.”
With ‘Baduizm’, Erykah was influenced as much by the community of artists that surrounded her, as she was a muse to them. Her strong production team included heavyweights like Robert Bradford, James Poyser and The Roots, who she’d go on to form the Soulquarians collective, alongside the likes of J Dilla, D’Angelo, Mos Def, Bilal and Q-Tip.
Many of these artists became known for their contributions to the neo-soul movement, although it was not one that the creators embraced themselves. ''What’s funny about neo-soul is that I don’t even know what it is,” Badu admitted in a 2008 interview with Today. “I know what the two words mean, but that term was thrust upon myself and D’Angelo by Kedar Massenburg. He has a talent for spotting underground music that he feels is the next wave. I guess that’s what neo-soul is to Kedar, a new wave of soul.”
Massenburg managed both Erykah and D’Angelo and coined the term to describe the sound he had been searching for; the wholesome stripped back sister to the commercial R&B sound of the time. He heard that in Erykah’s music and it wouldn’t be long before she was hailed the ‘Queen Of Neo-Soul.’
Yet, despite her closeness to Kedar, she was reluctant to being constricted by his soulful box. “I accept it, but I don’t want to be called the queen of it or anything because I’m going to change and then everybody’s gonna be disappointed,” she explained to Today. “I feel like the term is brilliant, but it’s not me. It’s one part of me. I hear some music and songs by new singers and one song I had is their whole style. So, that’s neo-soul I guess. I don’t feel like I created it. I feel like I may have poked a hole in the dam and let out all of the flood waters that were to the left to come through.”
The work that Erykah began with ‘Baduizm’ continues to impact even today. Her sparingly distributed co-signs have impacted the careers of everyone from Drake and Kendrick Lamar, to Tyler, The Creator and Rick Ross. While most recently she can be heard singing the praises of D.R.A.M through her Tweets, interviews and a feature on the Virginia vocalist’s debut album.
During today’s troubled times, a revival of the honest, uplifting and analog sounds influenced by ‘Baduizm’ is needed more than ever. Her touch can be felt across the Chicago hip-hop of Chance The Rapper, Noname and Mick Jenkins, to the raw honest R&B of Frank Ocean and Solange. But it is the next generation of female soul singers that Erykah’s presence really manifests; from SZA to Syd in the US and closer to home through the voices of hotly tipped acts like Jorja Smith and Ray BLK.
20 years on, there’s no denying that Erykah Badu has nurtured the essence of artistry, continuing to experiment and push boundaries; forever a hero to many girls whose inner magic was stirred thanks to 'Baduizm'.
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Words: Gabrielle Cooke