Two Hours of Inspired Weirdness With Erykah Badu

Two Hours of Inspired Weirdness With Erykah Badu

What can we say, she's innovative. CREDIT.

Erykah Badu/The Roots Radio City Music Hall Friday May 9

During climactic onstage moments, Erykah Badu likes to remove her wig. Sometimes this is a violent act: At a show five years or so back in Columbus, Ohio, she abruptly ripped off her mushroom-cloud afro and slammed it down at her feet in mid-wail, probably the single most shocking thing I'd ever seen at a rock concert. (Shortly thereafter she dove head-first into the crowd; she was dating Common at the time, I guess he has that effect on people.)

Feeling less aggressive this evening but no less gleefully eccentric, Erykah simply yanks off her smaller, more demure bob in an idle moment, twirls it around a bit, and sticks it back on. Backward. She looms erotically over a MacBook, primly bending 90 degrees at the waist to trigger samples before pouring some mysterious liquid (tea? whiskey? blood?) out of a thermos into a tiny cup and throwing it back. Her prodigious backing band plays buttery, modal soul-funk; her backup dancers often stand perfectly still and just stare us down.

A damn shame she didn't show up during the Roots' brief but bombastic 45-minute opening set: They even did "You Got Me"! (Plus a thoroughly raucous version of "The Seed," which morphed first into Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up," then on to Kool G. Rap's "Men at Work.") But it's hard to imagine anyone operating on the same plane, the same planet, as Ms. Badu, who can wail when she wants to but prefers to coo demurely, calmly leading her band around by the nose ("Wait," she announces several times per song, and the beat dutifully drops out to heighten the drama) and prancing lithely about. The selections off her recent New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) aren't so much songs as long, luxurious moods, but she milks them for all the bliss and drama we can stand.

Ah, yes. The red balls. During the moody, lovelorn "Green Eyes," Erykah tosses a few red exercise balls about, stacking them atop each other, chasing one with the other, hiding behind them, and finally booting one across the stage (it almost knocks over her MacBook). It's bizarre, nearly childish, and completely mesmerizing. "I just love her," blurts out a woman behind me, over and over. Badu hits us with both barrels whether she's being defiant ("Tyrone") or deviant ("Annie Don't Wear No Panties"); just before the show wraps up after two hours of truly inspired weirdness, she brings out a starstruck couple from Cincinnati, and the guy drops to one knee and proposes. (To his girlfriend, not Erykah. Though I'm sure he considered it.) Strangest, most riveting show I've been to in ages. "I don't know if I hit the right notes," Badu admits at one point. "But it was a good day. My shit ain't based on notes anyway."

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