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Badu's Growing Pains.

Ewrykah who? Badu hat? Those questions were in many mouths back in 1997 when Erykah Badu came out of nowhere and started blowing up the airwaves with her debut album, Baduizm. Who was this woman wearing a headdress who talked in cipher, and was dialed into heavy rotation on MTV, local hip-hop stations, and smoothie jazz outlets? No one knew, but Badu was the word on everybody's tip.

Baduizm was an irresistibly slick mix of '70s soul, jazz, and hip-hop, wrapped around Erykah Badu's distinctive high vocals. Fueled by the criss-crossover energy of the hit "On & On," the album offered one intriguing hook after the other.

It wasn't long before Badu was scarfing up Grammy and Soul Train awards while basking in critical acclaim from just about every media quarter.

"Badu has emerged as the missing link in R&B's evolutionary path, connecting the hip-hop-dominated '90s to the soul, jazz, and blues of decades past," wrote MTV Online. "Her triumph lies not only in her skill and talent as a singer and songwriter, but, perhaps more importantly, in her ability to recontextualize the emotional soul of Aretha Franklin and the plaintive jazz/blues of Billie Holiday."

In spite of those heady comparisons, there were plenty of folks out there who were expecting Badu's career to play out like a musical version of Comet Hale-Bopp: a bright light appearing in our skies for a brief period, then never to be seen again in this lifetime.

The release of Badu's newest album, Mama's Gun, has some doubters groovin' their heads in a positive nod, while others remain unpersuaded.

Born Erica Wright in 1972, the Dallas native became Badu after she decided to dump her "slave name." Erica became Erykah, and Badu grew out of a phrase she kept repeating while scat singing. During the next few years, Badu spent some time at Grambling State University in Louisiana. She also steamed milk and brewed lattes in a Dallas coffee-house, and later taught drama and dance at the South Dallas Cultural Center.

Eventually, she and her cousin Robert "Free" Bradford formed a hip-hop group called Erykah Free, which started to garner some positive attention in the Dallas area and beyond. A casual 1994 meeting with Tim Grace of Legacy Records led to a demo and gigs opening for acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Method Man, Arrested Development, and D'Angelo. It wasn't long before Erykah was signed to the new Kedar Entertainment label.

Live was released in late 1997, and it is comprised of concert versions of many of the songs from Baduizm, a few covers of R&B classics like "Stay" (a tribute to Badu's favorite singer, Chaka Khan), and the album's biggest hit, the witty, urban, feminist anthem "Tyrone."

Many critics and fans hailed the Live album, but some of the glitter began to fade from the Badu mystique.

"When I saw her live during Lilith Fair [1999], she gave the EXACT same show I heard on the C.D.!" said one bulletin board post for the Live album. Other detractors began to question the sincerity of Badu's motives and spiritual image. "All the incense burning feels contrived, her dreads and headdress are a wig, and the biggest hit on her Live album ["Tyrone"] was done in the studio!" one indignant hip-hop head told me.

By the time Mama's Gun was released last November, both Badu fans and detractors were anxious to see whether this young talent had any other good music in her.

Mama's Gun pops off with a powerful flow of tunes (unfortunately not in the playing order listed on the jewel case or liner notes). Like a kid with a big box of Crayolas, Badu fills in a variety of colorful scenes. "Penitentiary Philosophy" has a sassy street sound; Badu's vocal character on "Didn't Cha Know" is edgy ingenue. Her piercing soprano spirals down and around the languid phrases and stripped-down sound of "My Life." "... & On" is a direct descendant of Baduizm's biggest hit, and it offers deft self-examination ("what good do your words do if they can't understand you? don't go talkin' that s*** badu"). "Kiss Me on My Neck" prowls with feline sexiness. And Badu gives advice to the homeless sister who inspired "Bag Lady": "Pack light."

Mama's Gun also packs a few less-than-stellar cuts like "Orange Moon" and "Times a Wastin'." On these songs, the sparse arrangements and slow tempos that many singers would revel in are marred by Badu's poor intonation and lack of vocal power. ("I never did consider myself a singer," Badu confessed to Hip Online.)

It's also a frustrating distraction to read in the albums liner notes that Badu couldn't get the lyrics to the printer on time ("peace my beloved people, check web site for the rest of these lyrics--ain't finished yet") and to hear that that the opening concert of the Mama's Gun tour started off on a less than professional note. "Punctuality is not Erykah Badu's strong suit," wrote of Badu's kick-off show.

Badu is not the first neo-hip-hop diva, and she wont be the last. My first thought after hearing Baduizm "It's Me'shell N'degeocello lite." Me'shell's memorable debut album, Plantation Lullabies, came four years before Badu, and offered a similar fusion. But Badu's spirituality and humor were a much easier sell than N'degeocello's uncompromising image and unapologetic social and political commentary.

On the flip side are more recent comparisons between Badu and other female artists who have followed in her wake, making big waves of their own, like Jill Scott and Macy Gray.

Scott, who came up through the poetry scene in Philadelphia, told reviewer Gary Graff, "I know that I sound like Jill Scott. I know other singers sound like themselves, hopefully, and more specifically, I know Erykah Badu sounds like Erykah. That's why these people stand out, because they're not mimicking. They're not being someone else. And neither am I."

"We help each other," Badu revealed to Hip Online. Scott wrote the lyrics on "You Got Me," a hit single by The Roots featuring vocals by Badu. "We talk all the time."

The same is true of Macy Gray, who interrupted Badu's Rolling Stone interview with a call. "She says hi," Badu informs the reporter.

That said, Badu is realistic enough to know that winning favor with audiences might not be so easy anymore.

"I was this amazing goddess from another planet the first time I came around," she told Rolling Stone. "Everybody was excited. Since I've been away, there have been five or six."

If Badu can get through the growing pains of her early fame she will no doubt create even more thoughtfully produced albums than Mama's Gun.

Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and co-host of the "Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California.
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Author:Lewis, Andrea
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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