Perhaps the single most exhilarating listening experience I have had with an album this season has been with Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah. The record is at turns daring, spaced out, mournful, and full of heart. The production, much of which is done by Madlib, sounds positively dangerous.
Not one to play the shrinking violet onstage, Badu’s live show projects a similar vibe.
One of the premiere black female artists working in the music industry today, Badu is unafraid of weighing in on topics from single motherhood (“had two babies/ different dudes” she sings on “Me”) to solidarity with the working-class victims of Hurricane Katrina. Propagating revolutionary messages of social justice and much-needed change that ride a wave of Byzantine-structured sound, Badu, it seems, has hit her stride with this newest release. Here she deftly swathes herself in the most technologically adventurous production of her career and compliments it beautifully with lyrics that are confrontational, enigmatic, and artistic.
Going into the May 8 show at the Orpheum Theater in Boston, which was opened by Badu’s compatriots the Roots (making it strange that they didn’t perform the classic “You Got Me” together), I wasn’t sure that the densely-layered video game sound effects that are so present in the album’s meticulous construction would be efficiently transferred to the live set. New Amerykah’s sound is complicated and filled with an array of impossibly chic, up-to-the-second electronic noises, whirrs, drum machines, samples and blips; a chorus of background voices that never waver in their devotion; and a squall of live instrumentation ranging from delicate flute lines to an onslaught of wickedly crisp guitar feedback.
Badu is oft lumped into the category of “neo-soul”, which, if you have ever heard her music, is a little bit infuriating. If any contemporary artist is pushing the boundaries of preconception, misconception, and trail-blazing, it is Badu. She defies age, race, and gender norms in putting her singular experiences to song. Hell, she defies earthly norms. The five-foot-tall, other-worldly dynamo’s willingness to be artistically free and experiment without shame or fear is something to be treasured. How many shows have you seen where the featured act slows everything down, sends away the back-up singers, starts interpretive dancing, and sings a sexy love song to a red exercise ball while dressed in a black leotard, wig cap, and pseudo-mime make-up? Now how many ladies (or gentlemen, for that matter) can actually pull that off? But more on the voyage of the red exercise ball later.
The Orpheum is the premiere venue for most of the good shows in Boston, and Badu and the Roots sold it out, proving that there is, after all, an audience in New England that demands quality alternative African American sounds. It is not unusual for great hip hop and R&B acts to skip this area of the country altogether, but as evidenced by the multi-racial, multi-generational crowd of this show, Boston is a niche market that should be given more consideration. It’s been a long time since I have seen such an amenable crowd, in fact: middle-aged couples out on the town for a special date, elementary-school-aged kids rocking out in the aisles, tattooed punks, the queer contingent, and hip-hop lovers were all perfectly in synch, singing along to both the Roots and to Badu in unison. The crowd can make or break any event, and in this case, there was a palpable air of respect that brought a feeling of safety, like we were all about to witness something sacred and be bonded forever by it. Plus, everyone was moving. Everyone was on their feet for the majority of the show.
The Roots brought up a seven-piece ensemble to the stage that included two drummers, a sea of keyboards, a kick-ass bassist, and, for good measure, a tuba player who didn’t break a sweat despite his heavy load. Their (ruefully) brief set was filled with jam-outs and medleys, with tracks from their new record Rising Down, the aforementioned solo-Roots version of “You Got Me” (which made little sense without Badu), and their hit single “The Seed 2.0”, which most audience members sung along with—a little weird considering the song’s subject matter (impregnating a woman).
Still, with their joyous exuberance, the Roots successfully conveyed the message that live, big-band hip hop isn’t for the weak: it’s an art form, and they do it best. This ballsy musical unpredictability is surely why they agreed to support Badu’s Vortex Tour. Their talented, complicated jam-band anthems change dramatically (frequently) and take off into different stratospheres when you least expect it. As a band, the arrangements were incredibly tight, maybe even meticulous. The bass lines served up were piping hot and soul-quaking, while the guitars often verged on assaulting. The mighty ?uestlove even signed his drum sticks and cast them into the hungry crowd; one almost hit me in the head, but, hey, I guess that’s part of the fun.
As much as they might have primed the pump, there was no real way to prepare for the audio-visual blitz that was Badu’s two-hour-plus wild snake of a live show.
When Badu took to the stage, in a feathery mod black skull cap, stiletto boots, and a highly conceptual haute couture mini-dress, it was as though the audience was transported to another fictional time or planet that invoked Ursula Le Guin and George Clinton, with a dash of Radiohead thrown in for good measure. Backed by four female back-up singers, each with lungs as powerful as the chanteuse herself, dressed in outfits that can best be described as “interplanetary girl group siren nurses”, the show started off with some impressive bits of choreography. I’m not sure what I was expecting the concert to be like, but having just caught an excellent live HD set from Badu recently on TV, I expected something more pared down and laid-back. Instead, I was handed ferocity on a plate, complete with hot stage moves. The hottest I have seen in years, in fact.
Playing the first four songs in a row from her newest record, Badu and Co. nailed every note, every nuance, and every gesture from the first second she fluttered onto the stage. The live show added a gorgeously full flavor to each of the record’s more sparse moments (the first track, “Amerykahn Promise” actually sounded more anthemic than it does on disc), and the subtle rearranging and wild instrumentation were perfectly complimentary to the sumptuous, angelic harmonic tones in the women’s voices (“Twinkle” in particular benefited the most from its electric makeover). It was an extremely powerful image: five beautiful, capable African American women onstage, of all ages and sizes, moving in time, virtually on fire. The alchemy onstage was once in a lifetime.
What I was completely unprepared for was the forged-in-iron tenacity of Badu’s voice – this was some of the most powerful singing I have seen live, and that is not hyperbole. Badu’s lung power is astounding, and the clarity of her notes must be seen to be believed. In between fiddling with her laptop and her drum machine, she drank ceremonial teas from a mysterious thermos and concocted little potions for herself, presumably to keep her voice from crashing. The “analogue girl in a digital world” does not miss a beat. Each run, each chord change, each register she transcended—it was all accomplished flawlessly.
“The Healer” and “Soldier” were the highlights for me, if forced to choose. During the latter, she paused several times for effect on the line “got love for my folks/ baptized when the levee broke,” and prompted a call and response that induced cheers and wild support from the audience. It’s great to hear a singer of this caliber taking on such topical hot-button political issues, particularly ones that affect other African American women; and she offers a positive take on most of them as an antidote. On “Me” she pledges allegiance to Minister Farrakhan, but wants everyone to know that ultimately, she follows the beat of her inner drum.
Badu isn’t all politics and revolution, though. “On and On” was the night’s biggest sing-a-long, and was light and fun. “Danger”, from Worldwide Underground and one of her best songs, made a surprise appearance, and the recorded complexities and sampled bits, which might seem impossible to pull off live, were all successfully managed, mainly due, again, to the tremendous back-up singers (who this time took on some slick robotic dance moves during a languid breakbeat on the bridge). With competing melodies and several perspectives happening often all at once on the song, it could have easily devolved into a hot mess, but the lovelorn, epic squall about a woman who takes up the family business of running coke after her husband is put in the slammer ended up being brilliant live, benefiting from the nasty guitar riffs that flanked the singers.
During the show’s later mid-section, Badu appeared in a more light-hearted, pared-down manner, ushering in the luscious low-fi jazz-soul sounds of Mama’s Gun. “Green Eyes” found the diminutive singer dishing out some of the most conceptual performance art this side of Bjork as her back-up entourage threw a red exercise ball around and waved silk banners behind a seated, smiling Badu, who, as I previously mentioned, was dressed for Vaudeville.
This section of the show evoked another legend, actually: Judy Garland. Specifically, it was reminiscent of her intimate New York concert toward the end of her life, where she came out dressed as a hobo, nakedly emotional, laid out for the audience to take. I got the sense that this section of bizarre dance and free expression was Badu offering herself in a similar way to this audience, who ate it up. It was goofy, improvisational, and light. “Just make love to me,” she sang to the ball, whilst shimmying and flirting with it. It was maybe the weirdest thing I have seen from an artist of this stature, but it was definitely amazing. It is the kind of experimentation that sets Badu apart from her army of imitators. She grounded the fantasy with a killer take on that record’s “Orange Moon”, a lushly-orchestrated ballad that could have been recorded in the ’40s by Billie Holliday.
When it came time for the encores, Badu kept it short and sweet. Another Mama’s Gun fave, “Bag Lady”, began to pump from the sound system, and within minutes, the singer jumped off the stage and into the audience, where she shared the mic with whomever felt like singing a line or two. On the “let it go, let it go, let it go” chorus, she actually had the band go back and play the same bars over when she found a really great singer in the audience. She stopped to dance with a young boy who was raucously dancing in the center aisle; both were grinning ear to ear as she offered him the mic for a verse. She then made her way directly over to where I was grooving out with my fist raised in the air. Singing her ass off the entire time, she wrapped her hand around mine, held it high in the air, eyes afire, smiling, belting her song out while dancing with me.
How often can you say that during the best concert you have seen in years, you closed out the show by holding hands and dancing with the performer? It was a transformative experience. I can’t wait to see what tricks Badu has up her sleeves for the next assault. With any luck, next time she heads east, she brings back her sleek moves, her amazing friends, and her impressive arsenal of gadgetry—not to mention her sexy little man-whore of an exercise ball.