In the late 1990s, mainstream R&B music experienced an artistically transformative renaissance. “Neo-Soul,” an innovative genre coined by record label executive Kedar Massenburg, emerged as a refreshing continuation of the trend-setting Black music tradition. A mix of traditional jazz, soul music, funk, and hip-hop, Neo-Soul began in the 1980s as a soulful revolution of sorts, eventually catapulting underground American and British artists into the spotlight closer to the turn of the century.
Texas-born singer/songwriter Erykah Badu entered the scene with her 1997 debut album Baduizm and introduced us to the other side of the R&B game. Discovered by Massenburg when she opened for another up-and-coming artist, D’Angelo, Badu’s sultry tones, mesmerizing melodies, and eclectic vibes landed the Grammy-winning, triple platinum Baduizm on top of the charts as her voice dominated radio stations around the world. Badu was immediately compared to Billie Holiday, but edgier—a modern, consciousness-raising, hip-hop scatting songstress.
With her elegant head wraps and iconic fashion sense, Badu took the world by storm, hitting us with hits like “On & On,” “Other Side of the Game,” and “Next Lifetime.” The video for “On & On” is an ode to the quintessential Black feminist classic, The Color Purple, and I remember watching it and being intrigued by not only her clear reverence for the important work, but also by her personality—there’s an irresistible charm and cheekiness about Ms. Badu that is highly contagious. She has a swagger about her, a particularly Black and feminine essence, that draws people in. It is incredibly difficult to deny the catchiness and appeal of her songs.
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With Baduizm, Badu introduced many people to the Nation of Gods and Earths (aka “The Five Percent Nation”). The Nation was created in the 1960s in New York City by a former member of the Nation of Islam and heavily influenced several hip-hop artists like Big Daddy Kane, Poor Righteous Teachers, and Rakim. Although the group had a strong presence in hip-hop, many people were not exposed to the “lessons” until Badu included references to it in her lead single.
“I was born underwater with three dollars and six dimes/ Yeah, you might laugh because you did not do your math,” she sings on “On & On.”
While lyrics about “cyphers” and “doing math” might have confused some, she was rather deliberate in her integration of these concepts into her music, which brought the NGE more into the mainstream, at least for those who picked up what she was putting down. Her son with Andre 3000 is named “Seven,” a number that is considered divine in many faiths, and her videos conveyed a holistic consciousness rooted in Black power and the strength of Black womanhood. The NGE references became one of the ways she expressed her connection to hip-hop and we would later discover that she is both a talented MC and deejay in the genre.
Outwardly ethereal and serving more Oshun than Oprah, Badu is also an around-the-way girl with quirks and complications, and her multidimensional personality engaged Black girls and women from all walks of life. “Other Side of the Game” is an ode to her drug-dealing lover whose profession she acknowledged and accepted as a by-product of American racism and the struggles of Black men in this country. “Next Lifetime” reveals the all-too-real conflict of wanting to explore the possibility of new love while being already deeply involved with another. The video is an exploration of ancestral history and Afrofuturism—Badu travels from pre-colonialism 1600s West Africa to revolutionary 1960s United States to the spaced-out year 3037, possibly on another planet. And in “Drama,” she muses on what is seemingly our general apathy towards liberation and making the world a better place, and encourages us to stay woke and raise our children up the way we want them to go.
I recently revisited Baduizm––it’s been twenty years since its release––and I fell right back into the groove of the project, connecting with it as though it was released last month. There were several instances of hearing something she sang or a melody within the music that I’ve heard from others in the last two decades; Baduizm was certainly influential to several artists to come through the door Badu unlocked. The project highlights the delicate intricacies of Black womanhood in America and beyond at a time when Black women were still expected to focus most of their songs on their sorrowful love lives and the men they wanted but could not have. Hip-hop in the late 1980s/early1990s saw a resurgence of Afrocentric reclamation and affirmations, a vibe R&B wasn’t exactly on at the time. “Hip-Hop Soul” blended R&B and hip-hop in a way that favored the grittiness of hip-hop street culture more than the conscientious funk of Neo-Soul.
Badu, along with artists like Jill Scott, Angie Stone, and Meshell Ndegeocello, brought the diversity of Black womanhood to the forefront of mainstream music conversations. Badu is the cornrow-wearing, Wu-Tang concert-attending, cypher-spitting, bird-flipping preternatural thinker whose ideal femininity is as much Queen Latifah as it is Queen of Sheba. Before we knew it, sistas everywhere were wrapping their kinky or loc’d hair in intricate geles and wearing more jewelry with ankh designs. Sista circle gatherings looked more like late 1970s reefer rent parties and dating circles became more “conscious;” single Black women wanted someone to look at them like Andre 3000 looked at Badu in “Next Lifetime.” For many women, Badu’s aesthetic and spirituality sparked an interest in wearing their hair in its natural state and improving their diets to include more vegetables and less swine.
From Macy Gray to Janelle Monae, Goapele to Amel Larrieux, Black women artists increasingly embraced their unique personal styles and were no longer locked into the Motown or Clive Davis molds. They didn’t have to wear sequins or make crossover hits. They didn’t necessarily have to be super thin or have European features to make the cover of magazines or win music awards. They didn’t have to choose between hip-hop, rock, or soul; Black female artists could experiment more with different sounds that didn’t fit the confines of traditional R&B music and find audiences willing to stand for hours to see them perform.
Like many sistas who came of age in the 1990s, I owe a lot of my embrace of my own Black Girl Magic and unabashed eccentricity and Black pride to the tone Baduizm set twenty years ago. Today, Badu, who has released six studio albums since Baduizm, continues to be engaged in the music industry in her own way and influence those around her to be their true selves. She is active on social media, can be found hosting award shows and music celebrations, and in the last decade, became a doula who offers childbirth assistance services.
She is the mother of three children who already exhibit their own artistic talent, and her latest project But You Cain’t Use My Phone, the 2015 ode to the previous manifestations of her own self, proved that she still has what it takes to stay on your radar.
She is a soul music icon whose signature debut release is as relevant and important today as it was twenty years ago.