Born Erica Abi Wright in Dallas, Texas, in February 1971, Erykah Badu gravitated toward the power of performance from her youth. Immersed in a household of theatre and music, inspired by the women who raised her, Badu found solace in singing and dancing through her childhood, eventually picking up the art of rhyme in her teens as she gravitated toward the cypher, hip-hop climbing from the boroughs to the world. She was on the Black b-girl timing, freestyling on the radio and crewing up with her classmates. She changed the Erica to Erykah during her time at Booker T. Washington High School, abandoning what she believed to be a slave name. Badu came later, as inspired by a jazz scat sound she adored.
She attended Grambling State in 1989, and started the group Erykah Free with her Chicago-based cousin Robert ‘Free’ Bradford on production. After leaving Grambling before graduating in ’93 to make things shake, Badu returned to Houston and worked several odd jobs as a teacher and a waitress while continuing to perform and cut demos with Free. It wasn’t until ’96 that their demo caught fire, eventually landing on the desk of Kedar Massenberg: a record producer just getting his Kedar Entertainment imprint off the ground. That same year, Massenberg orchestrated Badu’s appearance alongside D’Angelo on their rendition of the Marvin Gaye single “Your Precious Love” for the High School High soundtrack. Massenberg went on to sign Badu as a solo artist, and the Kedar imprint ended up under the Universal Records umbrella.
In ’97, Baduizm dropped to critical acclaim, and Erykah Badu became a worldwide name for her innovations in R&B and neo-soul. She sold millions worldwide, earned several Grammy nominations, and released a Live album soon after, giving birth to her first-born Seven on the release day. The following years found sent her on a tear: she became a Soulquarian — frequently collaborating with the likes of The Roots and J Dilla — toured extensively, and remained a critical darling even as she struggled with public breakups, writer’s block, and a search for new creative energy. Badu’s 2003 album Worldwide Underground came in the wake of these struggles, but perseveres by channeling the jam session cypher energy of her roots into an album-long exercise of form and mood. It’s funk for funk’s sake, granting Badu the chance to get free without the extra weight of the world on her shoulders.
Two decades later, Ms. Badu remains an icon and an elder, her sounds set toward peace and healing even as we fight many of the same wars. Since Worldwide Underground’s in your Anthology box set, here’s a primer on Badu’s career to give soul to the uninitiated.
This is the debut album that set it all off. Speaks for itself: triple-platinum, Grammy-winning, and the record to put Erykah Badu far ahead of her contemporaries. It’s hard enough to have a good debut, let alone a masterpiece out the gate; Badu makes the insurmountable look commonplace. Baduizm is heralded as a pivotal record that resurrects the energies of soul and jazz music past, rooting itself in hip-hop overtones that are both inviting and enchanting. Not only did Badu pave a new path, she turned toward history to inform her new vision of a Blacker consciousness that dwells on matters of the heart, the mind, and the Higher.
NOTE: See the 1998 album Live for another representation of this body of work. Badu’s stated that she prefers performance over recording, and that live shows are her therapy. Also, you get to hear “Tyrone,” and that’s a non-negotiable required listening in the Badu universe.
The Soulquarian swagger leaked out of Electric Lady as the millennium turned, and Badu rose to such holy occasion. Where her previous work — classic as it is — drew some criticisms for being too lofty or pretentious, Mama’s Gun finds Badu channeling several new levels of vulnerability while standing strong in the development of her politics. On both levels, she showcases an uncanny ability to tuck her perspectives into the groove with such vivid wit and the right dash of humor. It’s a record about power: the kind we claim for ourselves, the kind we give to others, and what we must band together to dismantle if we stand a chance of survival.
This is the Badu album that came after dissatisfaction, writer’s block, and a newfound direction. She tapped in with some of hip-hop’s brightest minds behind the boards — ?uestlove, the late J Dilla, Madlib, Q-Tip — and leaned toward the digital as she shook the confines of the “queen of neo-soul” tag that threatened to reduce her power and potential. The album’s winding and spellbinding like any Badu work; she holds the weight of the world on her shoulders while reveling in a renewed permission to release to the world again. She grooves toward the future, marching in the dark to pump the brakes on Babylon.
Where its predecessor deals heavily in the topics of revolution and social change, the second New Amerykah brings balance to the equation via an extended meditation on the romantic. This album also pivots back toward the live, analog sound in contrast with the extensive digital production on the first installment. While Badu reinvents herself again, she doesn’t lean on past glory or “returning to form” to make things easier. She lays her focus on feelings far more than form, letting the creativity flow and the emotions run high. It’s a notably brighter listen, packed with the depth and conviction we adore.
The analog girl in a digital world freaks the mixtape format to bring new life to our ongoing struggles with connection and technology. For more on this record — our March ’18 RHH pick — read on here.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.