The Evolution of Erykah Badu
by Lis Steinberg
Known as the godmother of soul and the embodiment of “wokeness” before the word the word was even coined, Erykah Badu remains as one of the most influential artists in the neo-soul genre. Many artists cite Badu as a huge inspiration for them, even if they don’t fall into the same genre category. Some artists even claim to turn to Badu for advice, such as Drake, which developed into a solid friendship between the two. An artist that ironically tends to be overlooked by younger generations, Badu has changed the neo-soul genre in many ways, but only through her evolution as an artist as well as her collaboration with fellow artists.
Badu was born Erica Abi Wright in Dallas, Texas and was raised by her mother, Kolleen Gipson, alongside her brother Eevin and sister Nayrok for a majority of her life. During an interview on The Breakfast Club radio show, Badu described herself as a mischievous child, always attempting to be at the center of attention with playful antics such as teasing her siblings. The one thing that she was always serious about, however, was singing. She started at the age of four, singing and dancing at the Dallas Theatre Center and the Black Academy of Arts and Letters (TBAAL). Her Godmother, Gwen Hargrove, along with her uncle and founder of TBAAL, always showed their support by giving her voice lessons and finding her opportunities to showcase her talent. By the age of 14, Badu was freestyling for a local radio station and participating in local rap battles in the small hip-hop scene that existed in Dallas at the time. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and later went on to study theatre at Grambling State University. After spending a few semesters at the university, she decided that her true passion was in writing her own songs, which is what led her to eventually drop out of school to concentrate on music full time.
It is quite evident that Gipson’s strength as a single mother was admired by and passed down to her children because Badu’s music radiates feminism and female power. In 1997, Badu gave birth to her first child, Seven, as well as released her debut album, Baduizm (1997). The central themes of her songs on the 14 track album are independence and leaving toxic relationships. On the track “Certainly,” Badu reinforces this message singing, “Who gave you permission to rearrange me, certainly not me, I was not looking for no love,” as well as, “I don’t need nobody telling me the time.” These simple, yet powerful statements, were counterculture compared to most of the songs about unrequited love and yearning for romance released by a majority of female singers at the time. Badu repelled the antiquated stereotype that a woman’s life is only as significant as her relationships, as society began to repel them with her. In 1997, Badu won three out of her six nominations for Favorite Female Singer for “On & On,” Favorite Female Solo Album for Baduizm, and Best R&B/ Soul or Rap Song of the Year for “On & On” at the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards.
The critical acclaim did not end there for Badu’s kickoff into the music industry, as she won eight of her fourteen nominations in 1998, two of them being Grammy Awards. Badu’s acceptance into the R&B and soul world was extremely significant for her development as an artist due to the attention she received from renowned musicians. For example, Badu caught Questlove’s eye, which eventually led to her becoming a member of the Soulquarians (late 1990’s - early 2000’s). The Soulquarians were a neo-soul and alternative hip-hop collective formed by J Dilla, Q-Tip, Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, James Proyser, Bilal, D’Angelo, Jay Dee, Questlove, and Erykah Badu. The name of the group comes from the founding members, J Dilla, Questlove, D’Angelo, and James Poyser all sharing the same astrological sign, Aquarius. Their unifying musicality factor was their common admiration of irregular chords, dissonant, and offbeat rhythms.
After taking some time off to raise her son, Seven, with help from his father, André 3000, Badu came back with Mama’s Gun (2000). Badu and André had split by this time and Badu had just started dating Common. The breakup is touched upon in the album with songs like “Didn’t Cha Know” and most notably, “Green Eyes,” which covers the three stages of grief: denial, acceptance, and relapse. This song was one of the first instances in which Badu’s lyrical and musical genius is exhibited as she stacks layers of contradicting lyrics, such as, “I don’t love you anymore,” and “Yes I do I’m sure.” The album was a platinum-selling success and although it did not receive as much credit from the public, it was a pivotal moment for Badu’s career as she showcased her genre range and lyrical versatility. For example, “Kiss Me On My Neck,” produced by J Dilla, features Badu infusing funk into a track with poetic lines such as, “Bring me water for these flowers growing in my mind,” whereas “My Life” is a smooth R&B track that highlights Badu’s soulful voice. Badu’s ability to encapsulate the emotions of a breakup is evident, although she still remains obscure on her track “A.D. 2000,” a song about Amadou Diallo, the West African man shot forty-one times and killed by New York City police officers in February 1999. She sings over an acoustic guitar and smooth vocals, stripping herself down from the heavier produced songs on the album, letting her voice stand alone. This track was huge for Badu because it countered the stigma that she was only as good as her producers at the time who were already famous such as J Dilla and Questlove. The album was mostly produced by the Soulquarians and overall has a much more organic and raw sound that stuck with her throughout the rest of her career. In 2002, Badu and boyfriend Common split, inspiring a majority of her songs written for her third studio album, Worldwide Underground (2003).
Worldwide Underground marks a huge point for Badu because the album proved that she did not pigeonhole herself in the neo-soul genre as her songs began to have a hip-hop and jazz-influenced sound. “Think Twice” is a perfect example of this combination of genres, as we hear a sample of Donald Byrd’s track “Think Twice,” mixed with a drum beat that Badu scatts over for a majority of the song. Badu claims the album was meant to be “one continuous groove,” and although some criticize its loose structure, by October 2003 Worldwide Underground was certified gold in sales by the Recording Industry Association of America. Badu takes a 6-year hiatus after releasing the album to raise her daughter Puma Sabti Curry, who she gave birth to in 2004. Puma’s father is West Coast rapper The D.O.C., originally from Dallas. During this time she continued to perform live shows and put on shows throughout the United States. Many say watching Badu perform live is transformative because of her ability to entertain and command a room. Not only does she have a phenomenal voice live, but she also performs skits as well, many times improving the lines.
Badu releases her fourth and fifth studio album, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) in 2008 and New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh two years later, in 2010. Badu slowly falls out of touch with the R&B scene throughout this time period, as newer artists such as Alicia Keys and Beyoncé begin to take over. In 2009, Badu gives birth to her third child, Mars Thedford, with her boyfriend of five years, Jay Electronica. It’s not until 2015 that Badu releases her seventh and most recent album, But You Caint Use My Phone, which features an array of different genres such as hip-hop, R&B, jazz, and art rock. The album was inspired by Badu’s cover of Drake’s track “Hotline Bling” (2016). The cover took off with such notoriety that Badu created a mixtape featuring themes such as missed connections, miscommunications, and waiting for calls that never come. Badu describes the album as “TRap & B” as she attempted to create a “sound that brings peace and tranquility to its listener.” Throughout the album, there are psychedelic soundscapes, hip-hop-inflected beats, and weaves of Badu’s soulful vocals. Although the album didn’t receive too much notoriety, it was a beautiful segway into the next chapter of her career. Her sound is still the epitome of soul and rhythm, however, it is now infused with genres she has dipped her toes in on her previous albums, such as jazz, hip-hop, R&B. It is a mixing pot of musical elements from many different music cultures, combined into one fluid sound that only Badu posses.