Music Notes is a Pi Arts & Culture column, curated by resident writers Livvie Hall and Martha Wright, focusing on a variety of subjects covering the past, present and future of music. In this piece, Livvie discusses the music and evolution of Erykah Badu.
Erykah Badu’s music transcends the genres of R&B, hip-hop, soul, reggae, and singer-songwriter. She has crafted her own sound – distinct for relaxed, expressive vocals and slow, heavy basslines – and is confident and consistent in it. The wider R&B genre has seen a tumultuous transition into the 21st century, dabbling with hip-hop, rap, and grime, which Badu has navigated with credibility and flair. Unlike many female R&B artists, Badu’s music has not been produced formulaically to fit a commercial ideal. Her steady rise owes to valuing quality over marketability: it’s not about her, it’s about her music.
Badu broke onto the R&B music scene as an experienced and connected artist, having recorded several collaborations and supported D’Angelo in 1994. In 1997 she released her first album ‘Baduizm’, which was certified three times platinum. ‘On & On’, her hit track on this record, is simple but atmospheric. The slow-moving, mellow accompaniment complements a relaxed vocal melody line that almost sounds improvised. There’s a nasal quality to Badu’s voice, reminding me of Billie Holiday, that isn’t overly stylised and adds to the lazy soulfulness of her music. My personal favourite track on this album is ‘Other Side of the Game’. This is the smoothest of smooth, classy R&B. Effortlessly expressive vocals flow between Badu and her backing singers, blending with a rich instrumentation of heavy bass, discordant synth, lightly paced drum beats and soft brass touches. Listening to this song feels like sipping dark coffee.
Badu crafted her own R&B, neo-soul sound from the early influences of 70s soul and 80s hip-hop, which defined the style of her early albums. A process of modernisation can be traced from the 90s to the 2010s as Badu collaborated with artists of several different genres and styles, for example appearing on Flying Lotus’ ‘Until the Quiet Comes’ (2011) and Tyler the Creator’s ‘Wolf’ (2013). Her 2015 album, ‘But You Caint Use My Phone (Mixtape)’, has a more contemporary style, drawing influence from her dalliances in this modern alternative music scene. Badu experiments on the boundaries between R&B, rap and hip-hop on this record, producing a unique and pleasing concoction. Badu’s hit single ‘Hello’ features rap but importantly doesn’t fall into the cheap 00s pop R&B structure of ‘you rap the verses, I’ll sing the catchy chorus’ – which is something I really appreciate as a 00s kid who was always sick of 00s chart music. Instead the rap weaved into this record enhances Badu’s relaxed expressive style. Maybe it is this element that reminds me of artists like Hiatus Kaiyote, Jorja Smith, Ms. Lauryn Hill, The Internet, and Kendrick Lamar (specifically his untitled unmastered album). Like the other tracks on this album, ‘Hello’ experiments with more electronic instrumentation but Badu’s classic R&B sound is always tangible in bluesy heavy basslines and her soulful ‘stretchy’ vocals. My favourite song on this most recent album is ‘I’ll Call U Back’. Badu’s vocals repeat a narrowly pitched melody in an almost trance-like state, reminding me of an automated voice, backed by a dark, ‘wavy’ bass-led synth accompaniment. There is no vocal backing on this track, which adds a certain sense of loneliness complementing the lyrical narrative. Part of me wishes this song was longer, though maybe it is intended to feel short-lived and abrupt to communicate the on/off nature of human contact in today’s technological world.
To summarise in simple terms, I think you ought to listen to Erykah Badu’s music. I am always surprised that her work is not more well-known, especially considering her influential role as a successful black female innovator in the music industry. Badu’s distinct style effectively led the emergence of neo-soul R&B and she continues to experiment and collaborate across genres. Most importantly, her music is just damn good!