Erykah Badu’s creative evolution has been fascinating to witness. Since her emergence as an artist channelling jazz and soul traditions into contemporary R&B back in 1997 (then grouped under the umbrella term 'neo-soul') with her Baduizm album, Badu has been a restless and fearless creative force. While her debut album may have represented her commercial peak and highest public profile, Badu has continued to be a vital artist who has continued to evolve sonically, visually and creatively.
Badu has slowly deconstructed the seemingly impenetrable regal presence she emerged with, revealing a humorous, relatable and socially engaged artist who has managed to remain relevant by remaining true to her creative instincts. Earlier this year Badu was rewarded for sticking to her creative path by the Montreal Jazz Festival who awarded her the prestigious Ella Fitzgerald Award.
Now, Badu, who regularly DJs under the name Lo Down Loretta Brown and recently performed a one-woman comedy show in her hometown of Dallas is continuing to keep herself in the spotlight. Not content with hosting the 2015 Soul Train Awards on Nov. 29, she released her first project in five years, a mixtape entitled But You Caint Use My Phone (on Nov. 27) which features her version of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” called "Cell U Lar Device." As this new material is released, CBC Music takes a look back at Badu’s career to pick out 10 career-spanning tracks to represent Badu’s impressively deep catalogue.
10. “Honey” from New Amerykah Part One: Part One (4th World War), 2008
Ostensibly a song to an elusive love interest, this track makes the list because Badu’s visual extension of the song into her lifelong love for music is so creative, humorous and life-affirming. While “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” her collaboration with Common was a borderline omission from this list spelling out Badu’s love for hip-hop, the music being paid tribute to on album covers in the “Honey” video is a far more representative audit of Badu’s influences and inspirations. Watch out for the monkey.
9. "The Healer” from New Amerykah Part One: Part One (4th World War), 2008
A stridently imposing statement, “The Healer,” eerily produced by legendary underground hip-hop maverick Madlib is a mystical call to decolonize the mind through music. Scattering its coded lyrical clues on how to achieve mental freedom throughout, the track rewards multiple listening.
8. “Next Lifetime” from Baduizm, 1997
A top-notch Badu ballad, “Next Lifetime” finds Badu caught up in an emotional bind of unrequited love for someone else in a committed relationship. As usual, Badu maximizes the initial concept in visual form, leveraging the video into a time-skipping Afrofuturist fable starring hip-hop icons Method Man and Pete Rock.
7. “Window Seat” from New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh, 2010
While the song on its own finds Badu wrestling with a need for independent thought, the song's video, shot in Dallas' Dealey Street Plaza caused controversy because it featured an audacious act of performance art. Badu gradually stripped naked in public before being 'shot' by a sniper at the site of JFK's assassination in the video. By taking the initial concept of independence and then spinning it to critique groupthink, Badu shows her expertise at blending the personal and the political.
6. “Bag Lady” from Mama’s Gun, 2000
"Bag Lady" is a self-determination mission statement directly aimed at women to rid themselves of extraneous emotional, social and psychological baggage and focus on themselves. Riding the languid sample of Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive,” Badu’s message gains even more power as it is a direct, yet low-key response to that song’s rampant misogyny.
5. “Green Eyes” from Mama’s Gun, 2000
This is Badu at her most vulnerable. In denial over the breakup of her relationship with Andre 3000 of Outkast, Green Eyes is a three-piece suite that not only vacillates through various stages of emotional grief, but deftly through various decade-spanning styles of jazz, replete with vinyl static pops. A 10-minute tour de force.
4. "Didn't Cha Know" from Mama’s Gun, 2000
Expertly helmed by the late peerless producer J. Dilla, the melodically hypnotic groove on “Didn't Cha Know” features Badu freely admitting that she doesn’t have all the answers. Taken from her sophomore album Mama’s Gun, it helped to deconstruct the all-knowing mystical aura her Baduizm debut conveyed to some.
3. "Otherside of the Game" from Baduizm, 1997
Produced by The Roots, this yearning ballad, featuring Badu expressing anxiety over her partner's assumed illicit activities, is exquisitely executed. Its video — that at least gives the illusion it was executed in one shot — features Badu's then-partner Andre 3000 of Outkast and is a testament to the song's vivid storytelling narrative.
2. "Tyrone" from Erykah Badu Live, 1997
Badu began performing this song when it was unreleased while on her very first tour, yet despite the audience’s unfamiliarity with the song, Badu had their undivided attention — and howls of laughter — with the killer opening line. ('I’m getting tired of your sh-t/You don’t never buy me nothing’). The song’s admonishment to ‘call Tyrone’ has been a bottomless well Badu has been able to return to creatively, as is evidenced by her latest 2015 mixtape release. But You Caint Use My Phone’s title is taken from “Tyrone” and several of the songs - including Badu’s reworking of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” make references to phone calls.
1. " On and On" from Baduizm, 1997
While she has significantly evolved in every way since, Badu's debut single crystallized her predilection for coded social progress, jazzy instrumentation and introduced us to her Lady Day-indebted voice. These traits continue to infuse her work and form the foundation of her sonic template.