Woman of Influence

Seducing, sermonizing, showing off her best instrument

Reaching its peak in the 1970s, the Other Woman song pitted two females against each other, but at least it got them talking. Before Millie Jackson thanked her rival for washing her man's funky drawers, no woman had ever gotten out of doing housework by having sex—at least on record. Fans of that transitional decade of soul music, including Erykah Badu, loved how those slow grinds and mellow beats made room for funk, Latin, and disco, and saw its artists, clever enough to hide their liberation in a joke, as pioneers. Badu lovingly set the traditional Other Woman song on its ass: "Booty" 's protagonist snarls through a hilarious list of comparisons before sending the guy back to her vanquished rival in the explicit hope that he'll finally provide her with the fidelity all women deserve.

Unlike her mentors, Badu, a wonderkid from Dallas who began performing at four, was possessed by an unequivocal desire to influence. That the same was true of hip-hop, the music she grew up with, was no coincidence. She debuted on radio in high school—as a rapper. Many years and award-winning collaborations later, she's as hip as she ever was. Lenny Kravitz and Common refresh her new Worldwide Underground, billed as an EP although its eight tracks last 50 minutes. But she makes her guests sound good too, teasing Roy Hargrove before his fluttering horn part on "Think Twice," editing Queen Latifah to an airtight adolescent reminiscence on "Love of My Life Worldwide," and directing Dead Prez to file a no-frills defense of the working poor on "The Grind."

Although sometimes her reliance on mood threatens to get the better of Worldwide Underground, Badu remains faithful to the old school of flow, a blend of drums and rhythm designed to service soul's best instruments: its vocalists. As she would be the first to tell you, Badu has the Gift: a voice that only pretends to be about chops, an absolute and controlling presence that creeps up on you to soothe, seduce, or sermonize. Hear how she downshifts from the sunny casualness of "Back in the Day" to the breathy heartbeat welcoming new love's indulgence in "I Want You," then works out with come-ons, pouts, and cajoles. Glide with her through "Bump It Pt. 1" as her smile twists words in half until they're pleasantly incoherent and Badu finds what she was looking for—the company of scatters Marie Daulne and Caron Wheeler. "Danger" offers the full Badu menu: a vocal at turns pierced or pleading, set to big horns, bare clapping beats, and a conga that backdrops like those guys who pound day to night in Tompkins Square Park.

A Dallas wonderkid many years later, but as hip as she ever was
photo: Marc Baptiste
A Dallas wonderkid many years later, but as hip as she ever was

Compared to "Booty," not to mention "Bag Lady" or "Penitentiary Philosophy," these songs aren't about much, but when I first saw them performed last June at a Celebrate Brooklyn! benefit for her second home, nobody seemed to care, myself included. Preoccupied with her vintage drum machine, chewing on a stick of incense, she fussed with keys and knobs while her band waited for her to get it on. And then she did, screaming and soothing, wooing and caressing, cutting off the guys when necessary, arms flailing like a crossing guard, her timing precise and her fans transfixed. Maybe a little too much so. Badu offsets a relentless confidence with surprising moves, like when four bodyguards carry her through the crowd to be among her fans, who span the generations because that's what her music does. I was with them when she told us to "fuck fear," but later, when Badu thanked us for being a reflection of her talent, I got a little annoyed. Checking at home in the mirror, I saw myself, not Erykah, and I did look good.

 
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