The Truth is out there

Erykah Badu profits from her role as soul music's last, best prophet

"I want people to understand what I am saying," she offers, "because I am not only a singer, I am a messenger, and I have a message."

She has been hailed as an "Afrocentric hip-hop princess" (The New York Times), "Soul Sister Number One" (Vibe), a woman whose "Afrocentric trappings [are] often mistakenly tagged as hippie" (Newsweek); writers have documented how she "speaks with conviction of black alienation from the American belief system" (Request), and how "the gears of her groove are fueled by pragmatism" (Essence). She has used the myriad forums to espouse her views on race and religion ("I use Christian proverbs and texts, Islamic proverbs and texts, and Buddhist proverbs and texts"), to utter deep aphorisms that might seem silly coming from the mouths of most musicians ("I know the weight of physical things, and I understand the weight of the celestial plane as well"), but seem genuine when coming from her lips.

"I have to maintain the truth," she says. "In everything I do. I write the truth, and people appreciate that."

In so little time, that Grinders waitress has become something far bigger than just a Pop Star. She's now the soul-sister spokeswoman for the uplift-the-race movement--a hip-hop role model who offers "peace after the revolution," as she says, an Afrocentric icon wrapped in braids and beads, the chocolate Madonna who inspires the faithful to cop the look and ride the vibe. No less than Dr. Dre--the man whose languid Jeep-beats and siren-screams inspired a legion of would-be gangstas and thug-lifers to cock their Glocks--points to Badu as one of the principal revolutionaries in the "back to the positive" movement.

The former and future actress whose get-up is no costume at all offers up the entire package--old-school soul and old-fashioned jazz wrapped inside lustrous scarves and a thousand shiny rings, burning incense while she sets the pop-music world ablaze.

"I guess one thing I did not do was underestimate the audience's ability to understand and want what I had to offer," she says. "Usually, they're treated like cattle. They're led into a certain arena or a certain field, and once they're there, they're just there, and where they go next depends upon who throws the whip. I wanted people to understand where I was coming from--putting the culture into them in order to bring it back out of them. It was there for them all along. It just has to be brought out, and I guess I was chosen to bring it out.

"It really doesn't matter what people's opinions are of me, because I'm gonna do my job anyway. It's not a burden at all. It motivates me just to know that my efforts are appreciated. It makes me want to do a lot more. Whether they were appreciated or not, I would still be doing it. I'm an artist, but I'm also an artist whose job is being a recording artist. I chose to be in this position, and I planned my success, and my audience is a part of it."

Just as importantly, Baduizm erased the red line that separates black and white radio by fusing hip-hop beats and soul melodies and jazz vocals; she's one of those rare artists who became famous by creating a trend rather than riding one into the bank vault. Those critics who compared her to Maxwell or Tony Rich or Dionne Farris (whose rising sun long ago disappeared from the horizon) or D'Angelo (another Massenburg discovery) got only one leg in the boat: Baduizm transcends the retro-soul genre by embracing the whole of modern black-music history--from Charlie Parker to Gil-Scott Heron, Sarah Vaughan to Joan Armatrading, Sly Stone to Dr. Dre, Stevie Wonder to Terence Trent D'Arby.

Baduizm was indeed a surprise conquest in some ways: Badu's voice, at once ethereal and earthy, is like that of a jazz singer performing urban blues. She's the product of hip-hop but the result of history--more so even than the Fugees' Lauryn Hill or Maxwell. Baduizm flows from track to track like one continuous groove--the hit single "On & On" drifting into "Appletree" spilling into "Other Side of the Game" and on and on.

Two years ago, Badu referred to Stevie Wonder as "my husband, brother, daddy, lover, my music, and my soul," and Wonder is a good enough point of reference: Behind a backbeat trimmed of excess fat--for Baduizm, she rounded up pros (including the Roots and Hargrove) and close friends (including Ty Macklin of Shabazz 3)--and armed with a phrasing more akin to jazz than R&B singers, Badu is certainly a nugget of gold in the barren black-pop coffers. Massenburg signed her and hyped her as a "jazz-soulstress," a term that implies so much but really means so little, and there has been a mad rush to tag her as the next Billie Holiday, but it demeans Holiday's legend and loads Badu down with too much mythology to live up to. Even she's tired of the comparisons, weary enough to offer a rare complaint.

"People compare me to Billie Holiday all the time," she says, exasperated. "That's the main thing: 'She's Billie Holiday.' Especially in Dallas. Like, there's one writer who always has some real critical things to say, because he's a critic, of course. But maybe it's drifting away a little bit further, because it's our thing, and hopefully, the more they listen to the album, they would see this is just who Erykah is and what she does.

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