On Saturday night, Erykah Badu showed up once again for what has become Dallas’ most important yearly musical tradition in recent years: her birthday concert at The Bomb Factory. While the sold-out show technically started at 8 p.m., some mom’s-night-out gals fell asleep on the fire exit steps as time went on, having missed the memo that Badu is a fashionably late performer, and intermittently woke up to ask each other when they should give up on waiting and go home (and then answering, “never”).
The opening DJ set — heavy on old-school hip-hop — prompted hundreds into a spontaneous singalong of “Gangsta’s Paradise.” That was soon followed by the hype man’s attempts to rev up the crowd by asking who else was celebrating a birthday, and then instructing the audience to wish a happy birthday “to the Asian girl in the middle,” while bowing and saying “Konnichiwa,” possibly hitting on the right Asian language out of a possible 2000.
Badu’s fandom showed a particular personal pride, distinct from most concertgoers’ objective adoration or even indifferent curiosity. Several men looked like shamans in search of their mystic, while women wore their earth goddess best.
Tobe Nwigwe, a Badu/Dave Chappelle-endorsed artist, did a rap set following his fellow Houstonians Khruangbin, a monosyllabic funk-rock hybrid with a guitarist and bassist with matching blunt bangs, who played a jazzy instrumental collage of classic songs.
But the real action was outdoors, where an unscripted Cheaters episode unfolded when the patio door was busted open by a man being chased by a woman, as she yelled, “That’s my sister,” while smacking him and pinning him against the wall before being separated by half a dozen of security men. As the man watched over his better half now being wrestled to the ground, he yelled, “Hey, that’s my wife” to the security, thus clarifying the situation to a crowd sadly without popcorn.
One unrelated man came out to provide much-needed comic relief, scolding them with the words “Not at Erykah’s concert, not on Erykah’s birthday.” One security guard shook his head as the couple responded to the police’s interrogations. “It happens every year,” he said, defeated, as the rest of the security personnel went back to the scene of the altercation to search with flashlights for the woman’s wedding ring, even though she might no longer have use for it.
Like at any good party, at least two people were taken out in wheelchairs after passing out much too soon. The place was packed tight, with bodies so close that one wrong movement could start a massive fight, or a really terrifying orgy.
It seems like every move Badu makes is micro-analyzed through headlines, from her peculiar zaniness, to her outlandish style and philosophy. She’s been scrutinized for being “too woke” or not enough, criticized for sending prayers to R. Kelly, for hinting of her skepticism over Jussie Smollett’s attack story a week too soon, and for trying to find the good in Hitler. And no matter how much the odd disgruntled Twitter user tries to “cancel” Badu, it will likely never happen, because every unintentional Badu blunder drowns in the intentionality of her lyricism.
Badu isn’t just a soul icon, she’s practically a mythological figure, one who’s built a legend larger than her work, and she’s, at the very least, intrinsic to the ethos of Dallas culture. Sometimes even unicorns make an appearance, and that’s largely what we get at a Badu show — a chance to believe in the tales.
Producer Picnic introduced Snarky Puppy guitarist Mark Lettieri, and then comedian Chappelle, who came ready to ignite the Baduizm gospel, saying that the bash was like a church he “goes to once a year,” before he introduced Badu to the stage.
Her voice was heard first, right at midnight, appropriately greeting her guests with the line “Hey, hello” from the song “Hi.” Badu showed herself in a giant white hat and a coat and spent her time onstage next to a dozen accompanying musicians, a new-age pharaoh protected inside a pyramid of lights.
She fell into her hits early on, like her debut single “On and On,” with hypnotic elastic vocals jumping around a brilliant phrasing unheard since Billie Holiday. Badu scats and riffs where she wants, cutting her songs with a knife borrowed from the late genius producer J Dilla.
While always appearing spontaneous, Badu replicates much of her own stage banter, like when she went through the list of all her aliases (Fat Belly Bella and Downtown Loretta Brown, to name a few). She surveyed the crowd for first-timers by asking them to holler back their age group, and talked about “waiting for her ‘90s babies to grow the fuck up,” like her son Seven, who’s now 22 like her album Baduizm, and whom she raised, she said, through sounds and vibrations before he could speak.
“You’re genetically encoded with this conversation,” she told the crowd.
But it was clear that many were recent converters to the Church of Badu, at least those genuinely surprised at Chappelle’s appearance.
“Oh shit, is that really Dave Chappelle?” one man yelled. “Ni—a, text me.”
Badu took off her hat and coat, now a high priestess in denim overalls, belting “Out My Mind, Just in Time” and “Window Seat.” She spun in place, singing simple rhythmic phrases like “Goddamn I’m dizzy.” She ululated while tribal dancing and dropped to the floor to a room full of people showing respect by moving their light sticks to the right beat.
Badu sprinkled bits of lore, prefacing the song “Time’s a Wastin” by recounting a memory with her “baby daddy” — though she didn’t say which one — when she told him to pause and smile in the middle of an argument, as they lay in bed smiling and tricking their minds into happiness.
Badu’s family, including kids Puma and Mars, came out onstage to present her with a lit-up cake. Badu took a call from her mother.
”The whole audience can hear you,” Badu told her. “Wanna say anything to them?”
Unsurprisingly, her mother declined a conference call with thousands of strangers. Chappelle, back out again in a camo one-piece, which he made fun of himself (thank God) talked about his friend, and reminisced about their times together at Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland Studios.
“Every year the sun goes around and she makes the world better,” he told the audience of Badu. “Love is what it’s all about,” he continued, before cracking the joke he couldn’t help, “Jussie Smollett just wanted to be loved.”
For the finale, all of Badu’s guests came out onto the stage, which could’ve easily collapsed with the force of the heavyweights upon it: Mega-producers Symbolic One, “the God” Jah Born, rapper Talib Kweli, her band The Cannabinoids led by RC Williams and including drummer Cleon Edwards and bassist Braylon Lacy, and Cure For Paranoia. Actresses Jada Pinkett and Willow Smith, among others, all sang “Happy Birthday,” as balloons dropped on the crowd. The group began passing around the mic, going into bits of “Wanna be a Baller” and freestyling in between Badu’s performance. Chappelle was the one guest whose enthusiasm exceeded his vocal limitations, but he attempted to carry a tune anyway, with the zest of that one friend at karaoke whose mic ends up getting mysteriously cut off.
Badu made the audience into her choir, handing out different vocal duties to one side of the crowd and the other. She laid out more sage badass-ery before leaving.
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“Don’t grow up, stay fresh, stay loving, stay compassionate,” she said. “I love you so much, I am your servant.”
The goodbyes went on for so long that by the time they were finished after 2 a.m., the audience had done a not-so-subtle exit, and there was less than a 10th still standing, stepping on balloons on the slippery floor, while the group onstage was still going without a care as to who was watching.
Even with a given title as the “Queen of Neo-Soul,” Badu is still tragically underrated. Just as a vocalist, her whistle tones alone defy the laws of human sound. And the fact that she stuck around our fairly unremarkable streets make her the ultimate hometown hero, adding a legitimacy to the music scene that no one else could — most definitely not Post Malone. Badu’s party served to celebrate not just her existence for the last 48 years but, most important, the fact that she continues to exist in our corner of the world.