Happy Birthday, Erykah Badu! Celebrating the Long, Strange Adventures of a Queen
Erykah Badu, who turns 52 this month, is a queen. In many cases this might be said about stars in a very figurative way just to signify status or influence, but in the Texan singer-songwriter-producer’s case it feels just that bit realer.
She truly is master of all she surveys – not to mention, regal in bearing, forcing the world to operate to her rules (and her timescale!) and often radiating beneficence, but also sometimes terrible in her majesty.
Her pronouncements can be controversial to say the very least, often gnomic, sometimes even cruel or brutal.
What isn’t controversial, though, is that she’s one of the greatest musicians of the modern age.
Within a year of graduating university in Louisiana in 1993 she was supporting D’Angelo on stage, and by the time her debut album Baduizm arrived in 1997 she was a total artiste.
It was already a time of strong women carving out unique personal and musical niches in Black American culture: Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill were already titans, and buzz was building around Missy Elliott.
All of them in different ways emphasised the musicality in hip-hop, and hip-hop flowed through their lyricism and presentation.
But Badu tied that all together with a remarkable soul-jazz musicianship and an iconography that harked back to a sense of deeper history and spirituality.
With her Egyptian symbols, incense and mysterious herbal brews on stage, and lyrics with a distinctly mystical bent, she could have seemed like a throwback to the early 1970s if it weren’t for that hip-hop modernity flowing through everything.
Her persona emphasised the feminine, but with a steely confidence that said she could easily compete in the macho world of hip-hop lyrical battling if she needed to.
She made the everyday spiritual and the spiritual everyday. She was already regal, but with an earthy sense of humour, and a combination of rootsy blues with modernist intellect that often recalled Nina Simone.
She was also unapologetically of the American South at a time when the East and West Coasts still dominated hip-hop culture – something she would celebrate brilliantly in “Southern Girl”, her underappreciated 2000 collaboration with beatboxer Rahzel.
After Baduizm, she almost immediately released a live album – an unusual move but an audacious demonstration of what she was about.
Then, it was three years until Mama’s Gun – which had her kicking out the jams with the live band a bit more and emphasising heavy funk, in contrast to Baduizm’s elegant restraint – and another three after that until the way more rap focused Worldwide Underground.
A five year gap followed, then the dense, psychedelic, conceptual New Amerykah Part 1 in 2008 and Part 2 in 2010 – and that’s it… for albums at least.
There was also 2016’s mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone, a set of variations on a theme inspired by (and way surpassing) drake’s “Hotline Bling” single, and showing Badu as characterful as ever over a more drum machine led sound.
There’ve been sporadic collaborations, gloriously odd television appearances, and recent shows seemingly as good as any she’s ever done, with world-beating stage and lighting design to boot.
But despite various promises and rumours, and trips to Africa “to record drums”, no new album on the horizon.
That’s okay though, Badu doesn’t operate on ordinary industry timescales – and much as we’d love more music, the world is better for that disruptive presence (or indeed non presence). So happy birthday your majesty, and long may you stir it up.
Cover: Mika-photography/Wikimedia Commons
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.