She was queen of the head-wrap set. A generation of young black folks trying to navigate the pitfalls of cultural negation in an era when so much of black popular culture was dominated by cinematic gangsterism and on-coming devotionals to bling-bling meritocracy. "Neo-Soul" was the easy corporate pitch-word, 'cause it had to be new and everybody knew that Soul music was about "Love, Peace, and Happiness". While the debuts of D'Angelo and Maxwell are often cited as the birth of "Neo-soul" (Ndegecello is often added to the mix as an after-thought, though she first dropped two years before D), it was Erykah Badu's Baduizm that set the revolution in motion. Head-wrapped and steeped in Five-Percent Nation numerology, Badu was both organic and mystical, and on good days she could channel the Ms. Divas, Holiday and Simone. And for those much too interested in the "down low, nobody has to know" wing of contemporary R&B, she offered the trinket "Tyrone" and even a Chi-Town piper had to give her dap, finding himself calling "Tyrone" on "A Woman's Fed Up".
But something went awry along the road to deification. The first sign was Mama's Gun, sis's brilliant, though often disparaged, follow-up to Baduiszm. More polished than L-Boogie's digitized psychic meltdown (dutifully offered to the public as an MTV Unplugged spectacle), Badu sang of love lost, love unrequited, and of a womanish life still under construction (in search of her mothers' gardens no doubt) -- and the Badu-ites weren't having it. Seems nobody paid attention when she told them that that Neo-Soul shit was dead -- the video for "Didn't Cha Know", where the head-wrap evaporates in the sands, and of course the rather direct assertion on "A.D. 2000" that "you won't be name'n no buildings after me, to go down dilapidated". Even when she got back in urban radio's good graces with the nostalgic "Love of My Life", there was always the sense that sis was somewhere else and she wasn't trying to get back.
Worldwide Underground is Badu's latest and it finds the artist "Stepping into Tomorrow", with a new production collective in tow (sis, James Poyser, and Rashad Smith) and some straight-up, free-floating, funky-ass R&B. And for the first time in her career, Badu is wearing her own voice (she must have found herself in them gardens) and it is unmistakably Badu. According to Badu, much of Worldwide Underground was inspired by a relative period of writer's block, so she and her band hit the road -- the "Frustrated Artist Tour" -- to bring the groove back to the folks, and it's the folks who got her focus back. Worldwide Underground contains some of the studio gems from her travels.
The playful and improvised feel of the recording is probably best captured on the opening track, "Bump It", where Badu sings, "Push up the fader / Bust the meter / Shake the tweeter / Bump it well, well, well". The song closes with a prolonged (more than four minutes) and surreal Badu-scat (she's joined by Caron Wheeler and Zap Mama). The ending is a rare example of an R&B artist willing to stretch out. As she notes in an interview with Electronic Urban Report (EUR), "I wasn't thinking airplay . . . I wasn't thinking singles, I just wanted to groove, and groove for a long time." Badu's thinking is also reflected on the track "I Want You", which clocks in at over 10 minutes. The song's opening is anchored by Poyser's pulsating keyboard, with Badu punching in "I, I, I, I, I, I, oh you, you, you, you". When the song gains its feet, it's Badu trying to shake her new love thang, trying "a little yoga for a minute . . . a whole jar of holy water". Essentially an extended groove, towards the end Badu gives some love to the Texas screw music scene (the song literally comes to a slurred halt). At the end of the song is a muscular tag, reminiscent of "Penitentiary Philosophy", the brave track that opened Mama's Gun. Hopefully the little two-minute snippet hints at Badu's future direction.
Lenny Kravitz joins Badu on "Back in the Day (Puff)", a laid-back homage to breezy, back-in-the-day days where folks could chill with the "bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bo-ba-dop" coming from the radio. As Badu notes in the liner notes, "Back in the Day" is about "growing up before there was a four minute limit, before there was under the table 'payola'." Badu pays direct tribute to those days on Worldwide Underground's two remakes. Donald Byrd's "Think Twice" first appeared on his classic 1975 album, Stepping into Tomorrow. "Think Twice" was baptized as a hip-hop classic when Main Source (shout to the "Extra P") used one of the song's changes for their breakthrough hit, "Lookin' out the Front Door" (1990). Two years ago, J-Dilla (Jay Dee) remade the song on his solo disc Welcome 2 Detroit (2001). Badu is joined by Texas homie Roy Hargrove on their white gravy remake of "Think Twice", replete with house party soul claps (check out Guy Ramsey's Race Music), Roy's butterfat trumpet, and his own Byrd-like scat. Truth be told, Roy Hargrove is to hip-hop what Donald Byrd was to polished funk in the 1970s.
As Badu showed us in the video for "Love of My Life", she once fancied herself as an MC -- MC Apples in fact. And it's those day when sis and her sis nodded their heads to Sequence's classic "Funk You Up" (1979) that Badu flosses about on "Love of My Life Worldwide". Technically a remix of her Grammy winning ditty with Common, the song is really a remake of the "Funk You Up" featuring Latifah, Bahamadia, and Angie Stone, who was the original Angie B in the group Sequence. Even more than "Love of My Life" and the brilliant video that accompanied it, the remix is a reminder of when hip-hop was all about the party and the good times. You'd be hard-pressed to think of a pure hip-hop track that rollicks as much as "Love of My Life Worldwide" since Rob Base and EZ-Rock's "It Takes Two". And major props to Badu for reaching out to Bahamadia, who in my opinion is one of the best spitters (regardless of gender) in the business. Hopefully the Badu touch will do for Bahamadia what it did for the Roots.
Though Badu has never been thought of as having a "street" sound -- Neo-Soul was supposed to be the anti-street vibe, right? -- it is the "street" that influences the two most affecting tracks on Worldwide Underground. Revolutionary media darlings Dead Prez join Badu on the too-short-to-be-called-brilliant, but damn good "The Grind". The trio begins with an opening vocal run ("Everyday is a struggle / How to hustle some doe . . . Have you ever been hungry before?") that gets at the urgency of poverty in a way that a host of "hood-nigga-ographies" rarely exhibit. By the time M-1 is hitting his paces, listeners may literally be exhausted, and thus the abrupt end (off the line "Gotta make a revolution out of fifteen cents") makes sense. Brotha simply ain't got time to talk about this shit.
There is an echo of Badu's "Otherside of the Game" (from Baduizm) at the beginning of World Wide Underground's "Danger". Whereas "Otherside of the Game" was meditation on the pitfalls of being in the game, "Danger" gets at the fear and loathing of the game that is a pre-requisite to being in the game in the first place. In other words, it's not like the majority of these folks -- if they have any sense -- enjoy being in the game, but make the kind of choices -- "brother's got this complex occupation" -- because they have to feed fam. The song opens with sis awaiting homie's return from a correctional facility near you -- the prison house phone call where bruh announces his return and the explicit digitized reminders of the limits of these conjugal connections (and let's not even talk about the billions of dollars a year the phone companies make on the inflated prices of the prison phone industry). The genius of the song is Badu's ability to get at the every-moment threats to life and love as she exhorts throughout the song, "The block on lock, the trunk stay lock / Glock on cock the block stay hot", twisting the meaning of block (at once about sweeper-boy police who got the game on hold and the hot metal that comes with having to shoot a nigga if you have to). The bottom line for Badu is about "danger". This ain't no cutesy, stylized fantasy about flushing the stash while sis answers your "21 Questions". "Danger" is the marker between representing the "real" in popular music or simply "keeping it real", when the latter is really a dictum from your record label.
In her brilliant essay, "It's Not Right But It's Okay: Black Women's R&B and the House that Terry McMillan Built" ( Souls, Winter 2003), Daphne Brooks asserts that few critics have paid attention to the significance of narratives by black female R&B artists. She argues that, "Black Women's popular desire is thus depoliticized and disregarded for its reflections on domestic and socioeconomic politics and sexual fulfillment." But she adds that what "critics have failed to realize, to fully interrogate, are the ways in which this subgenre also operates as an extension of hip-hop culture itself." Artists like Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Syleena Johnson, and Erykah Badu are the living embodiment of Brooks's observations. Though Blige has rightfully earned the reputation as the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul", perhaps Badu's "Danger" has upped the ante. This is a song for the hip-hop world, in response to the hip-hop world, but giving a wide glimpse -- an audience, really -- to the emotions and tensions that so much of hip-hop claims to represent. If the emotional and political depth of "Danger" is the foundation of the next stage of R&B/Hip-hop, then it is a building that I have no problem naming after Ms. Badu.