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When I'm nudged into Erykah Badu's backstage dressing room at the Brooklyn Museum, she's still recovering from a spontaneous outbreak of extended public adulation. The peerless soul vocalist's Q&A for the Red Bull Music Academy has just climaxed with every audience member who wasn't allowed to ask a question storming the stage at Ms. Badu's invitation, to the dismay of the event crew. During the ensuing 20-minute crush, Badu's fans took pictures, yelled questions, and staggered away from a Brief Encounter with Erykah's Kind exhibiting signs of a mellow, but very satisfying, high.
So now she's tired, too. A few handlers buzz around, light incense, play the role of road videographer, or busy themselves with journalistic petitioners. Her bass player, Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner, is the only one sitting still, anchoring the couch next to Badu as if to pin it to the ground. As I've only been granted a few short minutes, I immediately ask Badu about her upcoming collaboration with the Brooklyn Philharmonic—a suite of arrangements inspired by her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)—when the singer proposes a shift in tone. "Can you give me a foot rub while we doing this?"
It's a low-stakes dare, but a dare all the same. Thundercat looks at me with a used-to-this poker face. As in improv comedy, the interviewer's job is often merely to say "yes, and . . ." so I accept. "My feet are kinda hard," she warns, taking off her footwear and extending her left calf, which is hennaed with intricate designs that extend well inside her pant leg. "It look like Africa," she tells me. The bassist cracks, finally, with a giggle. I take off my socks and shoes in a stab at solidarity, and begin massaging Badu's foot while inquiring again about that orchestra collaboration.
Her answer: It all comes down to openness, the correct feel, and the right references. The rapper and singer Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), with whom Brooklyn's ascendant local orchestra collaborated last season, introduced Badu to conductor Alan Pierson, who asked if she would offer up some songs for an orchestral rethink. Badu immediately nominated New Amerykah Part One. "I think a lot of the subtle mysteries and drama of that project will come across very well with timpani and strings and cellos and things," the singer says, withdrawing her foot. "There's just something about this social political aspect meeting this harmonic aspect."
This is a central tension in Badu's work, which can be both soothing and discomfiting. While her reedy, hip-hop-informed voice is a unique comfort, promoting all-is-well-in-the-world soulfulness, she has always been an experimental conceptualist and tinkerer, constructing multi-movement, suite-like pieces. (She labored on New Amerykah Part I for five years.) Badu's fans love her for her talent, but they're drawn to her every experimentation because few in modern pop can put the former in the service of the latter so seamlessly. "It's bigger than religion," Badu says of this polymath approach in New Amerykah's "The Healer."
Badu's ability to pivot from groove to gravitas is a positive omen that her next experiment won't be a modern variant on the shticky pops-orchestral concerts of yore, with familiar songs hauled out for would-be "classy" tune-ups. Under Pierson, the Brooklyn Philharmonic has searched for experimental textures and radical noise as well as orchestral finesse. The tough, fleet renderings of Bey pieces like "Life in Marvelous Times"—as well as their joint exploration of minimalist composer Frederic Rzewski's Attica-inspired opus "Coming Together"—proved better than anyone hoped. And the orchestra's programming has a political subtext that matches Badu's: They want Brooklyn audiences (and kids in Brooklyn schools, where the philharmonic also travels) to know that an orchestra can do old Mos Def songs proud and that Bey, in a new phase of his career, can deliver an innovative and successful take on modern classical compositions.
Local composer Ted Hearne—whose politically pointed Katrina Ballads cycle was released on Brooklyn label New Amsterdam Records in 2010, and who is orchestrating the new arrangements of Badu's New Amerykah songs—notes that the experimental-music world is already heavily influenced by hip-hop production. Take Badu's "The Healer," which features both a crisp, bell-like percussion part and a looser, low-end groove that moves in and out of sync. "It's all about that: about finding ways to get that push and pull happening with the beat," Hearne says. "The drums are just keeping time in the most crisp way, and then the bass is just behind so much. Just almost enough that it's not really in time at all," he adds.
These rhythmic games are like a drug for any post-minimalist Brooklyn composer. Hearne talks with excitement about how much "space" lingers between all the experimental layers of Badu's album. "She was just, like, 'Yeah, how do you orchestrate static?' I loved when she said that."
The June program at BAM will include Hearne's arrangements of five songs from New Amerykah Part One, with Badu handling vocals, plus Bey reprising last year's song cycle (arranged by composer Derek Bermel). Some of Badu's interviews from the recent documentary film The Black Power Mixtape may be incorporated into the Hearne arrangements, too.