Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut album Baduizm sold millions, ignited the neo-soul movement and turned the singer from South Dallas into a global star.
Yet in hindsight, it’s remarkable the record ever came out.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Baduizm, an album that had zero in common with other bestselling records by female artists at the time.
Badu didn’t have a big, melodramatic voice like Celine Dion or Toni Braxton. She didn’t make frothy dance pop ala the Spice Girls or angsty alt-rock like Alanis Morissette.
What she had was a vision: Music that was soulful, playful and deep, with one foot planted in hip-hop and the other in Zen philosophy.
While her colleagues gravitated toward bling and braggadocio, Badu served up mysticism and rationalism. Not Buddhism. Baduizm.
On Feb. 26, Badu will perform her annual hometown birthday concert and celebrate her 51st trip around the sun at the Factory in Deep Ellum. It’s a fool’s game trying to predict which songs the unpredictable Ms. Badu will sing on any given night, but don’t be surprised if several tunes from Baduizm make the grade: maybe “Appletree,” possibly “Otherside of the Game,” and most likely “On & On,” the song that got the whole thing rolling.
A quarter-century after it came out, Baduizm still makes a compelling argument for Badu as the best new artist of 1997 (she lost that Grammy award to Paula Cole), not to mention one of the boldest musicians ever to emerge from Texas.
The seeds of Baduizm began germinating long before Erykah was Badu, back when she was still Erica Wright, a South Dallas native who grew up singing along to her mom’s R&B records. Later, she studied dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and majored in theater at Grambling State University in Louisiana.
By 1995, she was back home in Dallas, teaching acting for kids at the South Dallas Cultural Center during the day and working at night as a personal assistant to comedian Steve Harvey at his Oak Cliff comedy club.
But she was also zeroing in on a record contract. She and her older cousin Robert “Free” Bradford were making make ripples as Erykah Free, a vocal/rap duo with a promising 19-song demo of original tunes, Country Cousins.
In Austin, at South By Southwest, she placed the demo in the hands of Mobb Deep’s manager, who liked it enough to flag the attention of Kedar Massenburg, a hot young New York music producer who managed the singer D’Angelo. Massenburg had already cooked up a term to capture the zeitgeist of R&B as it merged with jazz and hip-hop: “neo-soul.”
When Massenburg heard the Erykah Free demo, he loved it. But there was a catch. He was convinced Erykah should be a solo act.
Gradually, he nudged her to strike out on her own — a move she’d already been considering. And as D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar album climbed the charts, Massenburg was able to convince Universal Records to sign Erykah to a solo deal.
Inspired by scat singing jazz vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, she anointed herself Erykah Badu (as in “bad-u bad-u bad-u”). And jazz was never far from her mind as she and a dozen collaborators pieced together Baduizm over a 10-month period in ‘96 in Dallas, New York and Philadelphia.
Jazz legend Ron Carter provided the ringing bass for “Drama,” and Badu came up with the idea of having a jazzy “tick-tock” drum beat start the first song, “Rim Shot,” and snake its way through “On & On” and the rest of the album.
Her sultry voice was obviously steeped in Billie Holiday. But Badu would soon grow tired of the Lady Day comparisons, with good reason.
The beauty of both her voice and Baduizm is how they pack dozens of influences into just a few notes, like a meltdown at a used-vinyl store. You can hear Marvin Gaye swirled together with Chaka Khan and Curtis Mayfield, blending with Mary J. Blige, a Tribe Called Quest and Stevie Wonder.
There’s also no discounting the power of the Roots. Today, the band is watched by millions nightly on Jimmy Fallon’s late night TV show. But in 1996, they were still bubbling under when Badu flew to Philly and asked them to jam with her on a series of slow, jazz-influenced hip-hop tracks.
The languid ambience of the Badu and Roots tunes fit perfectly into Baduizm, an album that reels listeners into a deep trance. For a record with 11 different producers, the album is remarkably cohesive — a mellow tone poem in the vein of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
What ties everything together are Badu’s lyrics. She covers a lot of ground, from reincarnation (“Next Lifetime”) to hairstyles (“Afro”) to a tainted love affair between a woman and a drug dealer (“Otherside of the Game.”)
But mostly, Baduizm is a meditation on finding wisdom and inner strength in a society gone insane.
“Peace and blessings manifest with every lesson learned,” she sings in “On & On.” Moments later, she picks up the theme again in “Appletree” as she addresses “all the children.”
I have some food in my bag for you
Not the edible food the food you eat, no
Perhaps some food for thought
Since knowledge is infinite
Later in “Appletree,” she slips on her teacher’s glasses and gives a lesson on self-confidence:
“I don’t waste my time trying to get what you got / I work at pleasing me ‘cause I can’t please you.”
In a world full of silly love songs, Baduizm wasn’t your typical Top 40 fodder. There was no reason to expect it would make the slightest blip on mainstream’s radar, despite progress being made on the charts by kindred spirits like D’Angelo, Maxwell and the Fugees.
With the internet still in its infancy and YouTube not even a pipe dream, Universal Records spread the word about Baduizm through the two main channels of record promotion in the mid-’90s: radio and video.
Against long-shot odds, the album exploded.
“Hot 97″ in New York City started spinning “On & On” before the album was even out, and other stations quickly followed suit. MTV, VH1 and BET jumped all over the video, a delightful clip set in the 1920s with Badu doing chores around a rural home, then singing in a juke joint wearing her soon-to-be-trademark headdress.
Within months, “On & On” seemed to be everywhere, including a high profile Levi’s TV ad. As Baduizm crept toward the 3 million sales mark, the singer learned she’d been nominated for four Grammy nominations: Best new artist, R&B song, R&B album and female R&B performance. She wound up taking home trophies for the last two.
Critics loved the album, too, ranking it No. 7 in the annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, a few notches behind Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer.
As the album took flight, Universal began promoting Badu as “The Queen of Neo-Soul,” a title that still lingers today. Years later, The New Yorker would come up with a more all-encompassing and accurate sobriquet: “The Godmother of Soul.”
In the quarter-century since Baduizm came out, Badu’s music, fashion and philosophy have shaped thousands of younger artists, from India.Arie to Drake, who paid homage to Badu in his 2019 single “Days in the East.”
Remember one night I went to Erykah Badu’s house, she made tea for me
We talked about love and what life could really be for me
She said, ‘When that s--t is real, you just know.’
Badu has been keeping it real ever since Baduizm came out, including putting her career on hold for long stretches to raise her three kids, who are now in their teens and early 20s.
She hasn’t released an official studio album in 12 years, but she remains a restless creative spirit. In recent months, she’s launched her own live-streaming company, a station on Sonos Radio and an unusual brand of incense inspired by her own anatomy.
All the while, she continues to work as a holistic health practitioner and a doula — or “Badula,” as her clients lovingly call her.
Childbirth, music … for Badu, it’s all one and the same.
“I think music is about to go through a rebirth and become more versatile, and I want to be one of the midwives in the rebirthing process,” she told me in 1997 for a story in The Dallas Morning News before the release of Baduizm. “I used to want to be a superstar. But now I want to be a super-healer, because this industry definitely needs healing.”
In typical Badu fashion, she figured out how to be both.
SOURCE- Dallas Morning News