"What good do your words do when they can't understand you?"The above chorus seemed to have rhetorical heft midway through Erykah Badu's recent concert at the Fox theater in Oakland. You see, she seemed about to escape the song form, en route to dissolving into a polyrhythmic ether of sorts. Just when lift-off appeared inevitable however, hip-hop brought her back to earth, then, after a short tribute to Michael Jackson, the soul returned. Standing in the audience nodding my head as I observed the proceedings, I started thinking about the relationship between artist and audience. What happens when your muse takes you off the beaten path? What concessions, if any, should one make on the one hand, and, on the other, how much should you, the audience, indulge the performer? Because it was a close run thing you know.
This polyrhythmic temptation, this polyphonic inclination, has taken up much of her last two albums. Indeed during the last two concerts I'd seen of her, there was no attempt made to coddle the audience. During the earlier one, in support of Worldwide Underground, she was in the throes of a liquid type of electronic soul music and had began drinking from the polyrhythmic fountain. During the last one - in 2008 in support of New Amerykah Part 1 - polyrhythms possessed her completely. To compound the musical dissonance further in this latter instance, she had made the mistake of following The Roots onstage - a frequently lethal decision on the best of days, and definitively so if the audience isn't ready to be a guinea pig for one's new directions. I enjoyed myself - to my ear it sounded much like a Funkadelic affair, a beautiful mess in short, but I'm not sure that everyone felt the same. For example, The Wife had some words later on - and she wasn't cooing. This past February's concert was fun and more audience friendly (the band was gearing up for the big push in support of her new album). She has pulled back, it would seem; one still wonders however.
Let it first be stated that I dig Erykah Badu, that on the strength of Baduizm and especially Mama's Gun, I will follow her to the musical ends of the earth and beyond. As we wait for the new album to be released in short order, the question most of her audience is asking is whether she will reign in the demons that she wears on her sleeves. Musically also, we're asking whether she'll submit to a sonic conception that is more recognizably song-like and whether melody and old fashioned soul singing will feature. The snarky will ask how long can a soul singer be post-song. The music these days is all riffs, beats, polyrhythms. Blame the sampler (that new accoutrement that has been accompanying her of late), blame Jay Electronica perhaps for a carnal and musical temptation. At times she seems consumed with sonic tics and mannerisms reminiscent of Michael Jackson after 1993. It's no doubt very exciting in the studio but rendered live, it can be challenging.
When someone like Giles Peterson hails her as the Nina Simone of our time, I think to myself, hey, I too am an aficionado of Sun-Ra and believe that the creator has a master plan, but which Nina Simone is he refering to? Does he mean the outsized musical talent or is he alluding to the late era eccentricity and mannered diva stylings? When Sly Stone is invoked, is it apropos her recent funk excursions or... well, let's leave the Sly comparison alone.
Erykah Badu is self referential in the extreme and takes these kinds of cultural perceptions in her stride; she's all about multiple identities and musical schizophrenia. From Lowdown Loretta Brown to her other personas, she's a Kool Keith of sorts, presenting a hyperlinked conundrum asking you to stare at the performance while grooving with her. She demands attention and makes clear she will only do what she wants. It's the kind of creative freedom that few other artists have. It's also part of her mystique. In concert, she sheds skins, and is continually reincarnated. Costumes morph repeatedly as if to underlie that you can't pin her down, you shouldn't even try. To harken to the cautionary lyric that opened this note, I'll only add that there's a fine line between being elusive and being unapproachable. I was minded to call in Stevie Wonder and ask him to sing Have A Talk With God to her.
Let's not go too far and damn her with faint praise, Erykah Badu after all is a student of the great performers, and will jab and feint with the best of them. She remains very successful commercially even though the singles that are released now bear little relation to what you get when you buy the album. In the last album, Honey and The Healer, her tribute to J Dilla, were just about the only songs that moved the crowd and that were heard on the radio. Fair enough you may say, 'radio suckers never play me' is a refrain from Public Enemy on. She always makes sure to throw in a club banger, a unique video and moves units as the say. Who's to argue, right?
The earlier overt homages were to songsmiths: Roy Ayers, Chaka Khan, Midnight Star. These days however it appears that songs don't interest her, rather it is grooves, riffs, beats in short. She takes scraps of rhythm, drum and bass and forms sonic collages. The last two albums have been full of dense polyrhythms, loop backs, staccato effects, overlays and, crucially, very little concessions to the song form or indeed her audience.
I'm no musicologist but as an African I know all too well about polyrhythmic conceptions. The Congolese with their sebene (and the Ivoriens of late) have long prospered on these changes in their music but their inclinations are rather ecstatic. It's about the dance, the audience is constantly in mind, not so with our analog girl in a digital world. The closest analog to Erykah Badu's current game is the vodoun effect of T.P Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou. Think Benin. Think musical voodoo. It's the same aesthetic: funk underneath, musical mysticism, dense polyrhythms, polyphony and frequent changes. It's meant to be hypnotic at its best, I can only hope she reaches these heights as she continues to experiment. And if not, someone should hip her to Poly-Rhythmo.
A typical concert moment will have her holding up her hand, stopping the band just as they've built up a groove. "Hold up. Wait a minute." It's a tic if overused and you sometimes wonder if she can give it to you straight.
When performing I Want You, it is almost a dissolve into liquid incorporality but then she pulls back and gets it together as if she has returned from a spell. There are commercial repercussions to how she handles these polyrhythmic temptations. Erykah Badu is by most measures the most popular soul singer of her generation (I'll skip her elder Sade in this comparison and ignore Amy Winehouse and Alicia Keys - call them pop). The soul crowd simply appreciates the voice and the songcraft. The hip hop crowd love her because she has genuine love for that aesthetic. She also happens to make rappers lose their minds such is her aural and sonic seduction. The bohemian are drawn to her mystical stick. All should be good if she holds it together.
I can recall fondly a joint tour with Jill Scott and Queen Latifah in 2005 when they appeared all-conquering in friendly competition. It is instructive to see how her contemporaries have dealt with fame. Jill crossed over into acting where her evident warmth is welcomed - her music hasn't been as strong since, but there are mutterings that she's hungry to get back on top - viz the forthcoming album and tour with Maxwell. Latifah? Well she's escaped music entirely - I was given the hard sell over Christmas about a Queen Latifah perfume.
I know I shouldn't, but I'm going to compare her to Amel Larrieux if only to contrast their live performances. Amel will joke that she is 'the queen of long endings' and I believe that this is an interesting way of dealing with having to sing the crowd favourites. She'll sing most of the song straight up and then go an excursion at the end and no one can tell where the song will wind up. This strategy allows the song to be different every time, depending on the mood of the band, the vibe of the crowd and so forth. Erykah's heart doesn't seem into her back catalog, she's experimental from the get go, the song doesn't interest her, it's more a mood that she's searching for and she'll add layers and rhythms. The result is that the audience doesn't get even the benefit of being moored to familiar ground.
The new album, Return of the Ankh, is about to be released in few days. I suspect that the first singles won't sound anything like the rest of the album much in keeping with her modus operandi. Erykah Badu continues to be tempted by polyrhythms, this is not a temporary flirtation. Let's hope that she manages to navigate the tension between her muse's direction and the commercial imperative.
Erykah Badu at the Fox Theater Oakland, Friday 19 February 2010
Opening Act: Goapele
Goapele opened the show with a short set mostly of old favourites. She also introduced a slow and moody new blues: Tears on my pillow, capped off with a lovely organ solo. Oakland gave her love.
Here's my illicit footage of Goapele performing Closer.
Dave Chappelle showed up, drawing a great cheer, to introduce the main event.
- 20 feet tall (from the new album, psychadelia itself)
- The Healer
- My People
- On and On
- & On
- Appletree - done as an electronic boogie joint
- Michael Jackson medley finishing with Off the Wall
- I Want You
- Didn't you know
- Love of my life
- Hip-hop interlude:
- Friends by Whodini
- Lodi dodi by Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh
- Friends by Whodini
- Large Professor interlude showcase for the dj
- Bump it
- Back in the Day (Puff)
- Muddy Waters sounding joint
- Other Side Of The Game
- Next Lifetime
- Orange moon (snippet)
- Bag Lady
Obligatory blurry photos: Erykah Badu Live
File under: music, Erykah Badu, review, soul, funk, appreciation, polyrhythm, performance, creative process, culture, perception, diva, toli