Bewitched, bothered, bewildered

What to make of Erykah Badu's latest album

There's no lack of props for hometown-girl-done-good Erykah Badu, who sang, danced, and rapped around town for years before heading to New York and making it big at the tender age of 26. There's nothing green or tender about her mixture of old-school R&B and New Jack riddims, however, or the way she updates the soul-diva model, artfully blending girl-next-door accessibility and street smarts with the imperious self-assurance of Eartha Kitt.

While it's basically a mistake to make too big a deal about album art--you never really know who chose it or why--comparing the back covers of her smash debut Baduizm and her newest release (November 18), Live, is instructive. On the back of Baduizm she crouches, extending a hand; her eyes are pointed, as if keeping a close watch on the gift she offers. On the back of Live, she's upright, staring self-assuredly at you over the convex swell of her pregnant belly. It's not the look of someone lacking in self- confidence.

That fits, because Live isn't the release of someone plagued by doubt. Far from it. In fact--with six songs repeated from Baduizm (one of which appears twice), a new song (the popular sista-solidarity number "Tyrone") reprised with an extended mix, and three covers--you might be moved to observe that Live is a bit too confident. Although Badu is more relaxed, freer than on Baduizm--more inclined to swoop and veer toward scatty jazz--Live's not even "live" in the standard sense, but rather recorded in a NYC studio in front of a select group of admirers.

Why the retread, especially in light of all the stories circulating about the work under way on a second (now third) album's worth of new material? Perhaps the most trenchant observation in this case is that the Christmas plum is particularly sweet for the music biz, and that Live is a way of getting the seasonal attention of fans: some covers (a "Boogie Nights/All Night" medley, Chaka Khan's "Stay," and Roy Ayers' "Searching"), slightly different versions of favorites from Baduizm ("Rimshot," her monster hit "On & On," "Apple Tree," "Other Side of the Game," "Next Lifetime," and "Certainly") and three new songs. Given Badu's quickly flowering popularity--Baduizm debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200, and "On & On" dominated the singles charts for weeks--Christmas sales are probably a lead-pipe cinch, but there's another savvy hook: the inclusion of "Tyrone," a song about a woman waking up to the fact that she doesn't need an unsatisfying relationship--an attention-getter this summer whenever Badu performed it as a headliner with the Smokin' Grooves tour. "Tyrone" is already infiltrating radio--with plenty of time for a pre-Christmas build--but it won't be released as a single; the only way to get a copy for home play will be to buy Live.

Perhaps we grouse too much. All of the Badu-isms of Baduizm--the homegirl sass, the educated self-determination, the Afro-centrism, and the amazing vocal blend (Lady Day's world-weariness, Sarah Vaughan's smooth flow, Chaka Khan's fire, Eartha Kitt's growl, and just a hint of Dionne Warwick's sweetness) are present. It's just that by overlapping so much material so soon (Baduizm was only released in February), the disc assumes a bit too much; this is a move that usually plays better after several years and albums of established diva-dom, and true divas never make their moves too soon.

But Badu is probably accomplished and popular enough to avoid taking much of a hit on this, and she's too young to have some stone of shame (or shamelessness) chained to her ankle for her audacity. Expectations for her third--her new--album will be that much higher, and she'll have to do that much better, but confidence is one thing that Erykah Badu has never run short on.

Millard Lampell, 1919-1997
Millard Lampell died last month. If you've never heard the name, that news might not seem so shocking. Lampell--a protest singer, novelist, and screenwriter who, for most of his last three years, lived with his wife, Ramona, in the unlikely hamlet of Lewisville--was 78 years old when he succumbed to lung cancer on October 3. But for those who knew his work, or knew the man himself, Lampell seemed ageless. He never acted old; he possessed to the last of a certain youthful vigor and wry wit. He never wrote old; at the time of his death, he had completed several chapters of compelling, unsentimental memoirs ("memory is a cunning con-man," went the first line), and one of his final short pieces was an article for D magazine that, among other things, mocked Plano suburbia and examined the boredom-cum-rebellion of Deep Ellum youths. And he certainly never looked old; clad in a beige sport coat and his omnipresent square spectacles last year at an SMU seminar on the blacklist (of which Lampell was a noted victim), he acted a good 25 years younger than his age. Indeed, it might almost have been less surprising had Lampell lived another 78 years.

Though he would have blanched at such an aphorism, Lampell was among the last of a vanishing breed: the artist whose social conscience successfully informed his work. It was so from the start. After attending the University of West Virginia on an abortive football scholarship, Lampell moved to New York City with Lee Hays, an Arkansas preacher's son he'd recently befriended. The pair soon connected with an aspiring folk singer named Pete Seeger, who shared both men's left-leaning political sentiments and compassion for the repressed. In 1940, the three formed the Almanac Singers, a group that eventually grew to include Sis Cunningham and dust-bowl legend Woody Guthrie. The band criss-crossed America, singing at union meetings and hootenannies; as its members began joining the war effort in 1942, the Almanacs disbanded--but not before they had released four albums, recently reissued on CD by MCA.

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