The queen of neo-soul, a R&B/hip-hop heroine, and one of the most influential vocalists of all time, are all monumental descriptions that have been rightly given to the diva we call Erkyah Badu.
On the 11th of February 1997, Badu released her debut album Baduizm with Kedar Records, the same label that had signed the legendary D’angelo. The album won her two Grammys in 1998 and made her (alongside D’angelo) one of the most prominent creators of neo-soul.
Despite my mum buying her 2003 album Worldwide Underground and many of my housemates following Baduizm religiously, my obsession with Badu was a somewhat delayed one. I had heard and appreciated her talents sincerely but could never fully comprehend the hype.
I decided I would listen to Baduizm in full focus to see what all the fuss was about. So I ran a hot bath overflowing with bubbles, lit a couple of candles, supplied myself with a bottle of red and pressed play on Spotify. The best word to describe that following (approximate) hour was therapy.
The killer record opens with “Rim Shot – Intro” where we are introduced to Badu’s Billie Holiday influenced jazzy tone, while keys hold sensuous 7th chords and the snare rim shots provide a syncopated groove.
Following this comes Badu’s debut single “On & On” which is, in my opinion, the best of all her tunes. The instrumental is similar to the previous song, however occasional swirly piano glissandi’s and echoed funk-like guitar whines are added.
In terms of vocals, Badu’s melody is littered with ornamentation, including melismatic scalic phrases, and there is a contrast within note lengths to exploit both her delicate vibrato and snappy, attitude filled almost spoken phrases. In the second verse after Badu serenades us with a lustful little expression on the lyrics “like one two three“, we experience her charismatic character as she addresses her backing singers – “Damn, y’all feel that?”
In “Next Lifetime“, Badu rhymes the lyrics “now what am I supposed to do when I want you in my world, but how can I want you for myself when I’m already someone’s girl“, the infectiousness of the hook mirrors the, for many, relatable dilemma she is singing about. The slow ’n’ sexy instrumental and Badu’s heavenly adlibs and backing vocals make this tune, in my mind, an anthem for love-struck females.
Badu once said in an interview in Hamburg 2002, that “when people put artist’s music in categories it kind of limits what it is, because people begin to expect that type of thing from them“. This applies to the concept of the Neo-soul music she makes, despite Neo-soul being a ‘category’, it is very much a musical spectrum that combines other types of music perhaps more obviously than some other genres.
Among Neo-soul’s influences is blues – as heard in the 7th track on her debut – “Afro – Freestyle Skit“. This tune is gorgeously bluesy and lazy, with chromatic melodic traits of ‘The Empress Of Blues’ – Bessie Smith.
Badu sings sass filled lyrics that mock the lopsided afro of a man who doesn’t treat her as good as he should, while the electric bass walks and the trumpet chuckles in a cheeky encouragement of Badu’s direct telling off. This track is raw and effortless but so addictive you’ll be playing it on repeat.
Baduizm is a seriously significant record, one that would be the equivalent of Wuthering Heights if you were taking an A-level in neo-soul rather than English literature. It played a crucial role in the sculpting of the genre but also provided and continues to provide lovers of hip-hop, soul, R&B and jazz with a delicious debut to relish.
Erykah Badu’s Baduizm is out now via Universal Records, purchase it on iTunes here, and stream it below.
Words by Hannah Rodríguez