Released in February 1997, Erykah Badu’s ‘Baduizm’ helped cement a genre and launch the career of a singular voice and artistic vision that continues to influence the charts today. More than that, ‘Baduizm’ showed that singular artistic vision that borders on the left field can successfully translate universalities that transform the mainstream overnight. Twenty-five years on from its release, we look back at Erykah Badu’s debut LP ‘Baduizm’.
Born Erica Abi Wright, Badu got her stage name from her scat-style singing “ba-doo, ba-doo”. Having trained in drama and dance, Badu performed with her cousin Robert “Free” Bradford as the duo ‘Erykah Free’ where she first gained the attention of Kedar Massenburg, manager of D’Angelo, who signed Badu as a solo artist.
While principle recording took place at Battery Studios in New York, the majority of ‘Baduizm’ had been sketched out in demo form in Dallas, TX with several key tracks already relatively solidified in form. Opener ‘Rimshot’, which also closes the album, was formed when Badu was recording with Madukwu Chinwah and asked what the distinctive sound was, where a drummer catches both the middle and outer edge of a snare drum. When Chinwah explained this was a “rimshot”, Badu was inspired not only to begin developing a now instantly recognisable beat but a double-entendre laden track that perfectly introduces the listener to her sound. Beginning with deep bass, the stripped down tick-tick-tick-clack percussion comes in before Badu’s multi-tracked vocals enter. In a little under two minutes Badu introduces the essential components of her Soul style that instantly marked her out; her skat style, her perfectly controlled but audible breath, her humour and her mystique. Filled with longing, suggestive of unabridged lust, ‘Rimshot’ told a story of love for a beat and introduced the world to Erykah Badu’s “izm”.
The mid-1990s were not wanting for quality R&B that pushed the envelope, nor for forward looking Hip Hop. Soul, on the other hand, was a less bouyant genre where it was more likely to be used as a descriptor of those other genres, e.g. “soulful Hip Hop”, than be viewed critically as a cutting edge genre in its own right. From a marketing standpoint this created an issue for artists such as D’Angelo whose debut ‘Brown Sugar’ really was soulful R&B. Sensing an opportunity, Massenburg began to tout the term “Neo-Soul” to describe both D’Angelo and, particularly, Erykah Badu, though not without some controversy. Critics eagerly pointed out that Soul had never gone away, so there was nothing “new” to revive. Nonetheless, the classification stuck and Badu became the poster child of Neo-Soul when she released first single ‘On & On’ into the world.
Hitting number 12 on the Billboard chart, ‘On & On’ is surprisingly the one track that Badu felt lost something in the recording process, having shed some of the Hip Hop edge of the original demo version. Built from a beat crafted by Dallas producer JaBorn Jamal, who Badu gives a shout out mid-track, the song finds her taking the role of spiritual advisor as she draws on the teachings of the Five-Percent Nation and then, in keeping with her own style, brings things down to earth with the line “I think I need a cup of tea”. A moving and affecting track, whether the listener understands the underlying religious and racial politics in the lyrics or not, the track walks a line of being rich with depth but easy on the ear.
Elsewhere, ‘Appletree’ takes a beat crafted by Badu’s cousin Free and crafts a Hip Hop leaning tale that captures her time in Dallas, both learning lessons from her grandmother and as part of the city’s cultural scene. It’s notable that in order to “break” Badu in the marketplace, her label and management arranged gigs and time around Brooklyn and New York. Yet ‘Baduizm’ doesn’t quite fit with the music coming from the East coast at the time, and in some ways this move marked Badu out as more of an outlier, partly because so many of the tracks here stem from those initial demos. The following two tracks, ‘Other Side Of The Game’ and ‘Sometimes - Mix #9’, however, were late additions to the LP after Badu persuaded her management to let her record with a lesser known Philadelphia based group who would go on to huge fame, The Roots. Working closely with James Poyser, who at that time wasn’t a full member of the band, Badu quickly formed an intuitive and vibrant working relationship that, along with ?uestlove, produced the most Soul-focused track on the album.
When Badu is joined by double bass, keys and horns on the Jazz cut ‘Certainly’ she sparked a comparison to Billie Holiday that has followed her since. There’s something to be said for the way each artist controls their pace, emphasising elements with their breathwork and using pauses and careful dynamics to create a dialogue with a single voice. Yet, a more telling comparison may be with a very different artist; Prince. Like him, Badu’s voice demands attention as if there is no other person in the room as she lingers on notes, packs in suggestive, knowing glances into her lyrics, and crafts musical callbacks that confirm that she’s always in complete control. An act of musical seduction, Badu implies as much as she states as she demands to be read, and at times mis-read, for impact and effect.
‘Baduizm’ is a unique work that stood out from its peers with its mixed philosophy of Soul, Hip Hop, R&B, Black and Female identity politics, spirituality, and Pop sensibility. That this mix, so capable of turning off listeners at various points, was instead translated into an album that feels filled with universalities, open for anyone, ensured that it would go on to sell triple-platinum in the US alone. Few have managed to make such elusive music so accessible, where deep identity politics are captured in a vibe and rich musical traditions are recast as new. That’s the strength of Erykah Badu’s vision and voice. That ‘Baduizm’ was released twenty-five years ago and still appears contemporary is testament to how she captured Soul, whether ‘Neo’ or not.