Before she told ya to call “Tyrone,” before she was the “Bag Lady,” before she got up from her “Window Seat” and showed her whole ass, Erykah Badu introduced herself to the world with Baduizm 20 years ago today. For that, the world should be forever grateful.
Let’s put this iconic moment into context, shall we? It was the mid-90s and R&B was flourishing as a genre, surpassing the typical sounds of Pop radio to become the most prominent and successful genre on the airwaves. With that said, it naturally became more radio-friendly and commercial viable (read: white-people-friendly) and, as Hip-Hop rose to new commercial heights, cross-pollination began between the two genres to birth what we know today as contemporary R&B.
In the midst of this genre evolution, three young, new artists emerged from the quiet storm to engineer a new sound. These pioneers were D’Angelo, with his Brown Sugar (1995), Maxwell, with his Urban Hang Suite (1996), and Erykah Badu, with her Baduizm. Over the course of three years, this trio helped found a new genre: Neo-Soul.
Rightfully so, Ms. Badu became, essentially, the First Lady of Neo-Soul. Her melding of R&B, Soul, Jazz and Hip-Hop inspirations with her raw, honest lyricism and uniquely emotive vocals indeed defined the new genre. Not only that, but Badu did something her male counterparts did not: she did not make an album about love. Yes, there are a few love songs, but the lyrical content of Baduizm goes beyond; it goes deeper. Erykah Badu made a name for herself by being unabashedly honest and thought-provoking. Prior to Baduizm, this was not necessarily a defining quality of the genre… but Erykah made it so. And, she made a classic album in the process.
Have you ever listened to a new album and it automatically clicks something inside of you, and it just feels right? It sounds warm and familiar, like it’s an old favorite? Similar to meeting a person for the first time but feeling like you’ve known them all your life, a good album can have that very same effect. Often, it’s because said album does a great job of reviving old sounds. (Most recently, I experienced this with Bruno Mars’ 24k Magic, because he ingeniously mixed various R&B trends into one album.)
If you’ve never listened to Baduizm, you might have that feeling when you turn it on for the first time. I did. A few years ago, I had that very experience with the album. I bought the album on vinyl, set the needle, hit play, and felt right at home with this phenomenal album. Granted, I already knew songs like “On & On” and “Next Lifetime,” but something about the album felt fresh, yet familiar. The reason for that is simple. Nearly every Neo-Soul album to follow Baduizm has likely been inspired by it.
I love Badu, but my favorite Neo-Soul artist, and one of my favorite singers in general, is Jill Scott. Aside from the common connection in that they both worked with The Roots in the beginning of their careers, Scott’s early work was clearly inspired, heavily, by Baduizm. The spoken word, the conversational vocal delivery, deep lyrical content, the organic, warm, soulful, jazzy inspirations and the swag of a Hip-Hop artist that is present in both of their work are clearly from the church of Baduizm. So, let’s talk about some of the church’s most revered hymns, shall we?
The first single off the album, and Ms. Badu’s breakout song, was “On & On,” a puzzling, spiritual track. I’m still not quite sure I fully understand what the song is about, and I spent a considerable amount of time pouring over its Genius annotations. Likely, though, most listeners didn’t get it either… yet we still jammed to it. The melody is irresistible, and Badu flows effortlessly over the organic, sparsely produced beat. Even if you don’t understand she’s actually talking about, it’s almost impossible not to bop and sing along. Former beau André 3000 of Outkast affectionally called her “Erykah ‘On & On’ Badu,”
My personal favorite off the album is the next song in the tracklisting: “Appletree.” Coincidentally enough, the message of the song carries an extended metaphor that alludes to infamous tree of knowledge from the Bible story of Adam and Eve, informing us that she is, in fact, full of a vast amount of complex knowledge. “Appletree” finds Badu showcasing her innate ability to flawlessly bounce her melodic voice atop a beat, more than earning the Billie Holliday comparisons she has received throughout her career. You could strip “Appletree” of it’s instrumental, and it would STILL bop. Erykah has an uncanny ability to seemingly scat the rhythm of a drum with her words, melodies and voice. “Appletree” is the perfect example of her skill.
“Next Lifetime” is one of those unabashedly honest and subsequently uber-relatable tracks on Baduizm. Here, Badu laments about meeting a man she could fall for… except for one pesky problem, she’s “already someone’s girl.” It’s that classic tale of the one that got away, but with a unique, Neo-Soul twist. “Next Lifetime” is a classic that helped introduce us to an Erykah Badu who was not afraid to keep it real. The song has a slinky bedroom knocking beat that recalls the Isley Brothers, as she croons with a sensual pain she feels as a result of her dilemma. It’s introspection at its finest.
Perhaps the catchiest track on the album is “4 Leaf Clover,” a dramatic sounding mid-tempo that begins with a beautifully arranged introduction before the beat drops and the groove kicks in. Its a feel good track where Erykah takes a more traditional approach to create a quintessential R&B track that fit right in with the times. It’s a bit reminiscent of Amel Larrieux and her work with Groove Theory on their 1995 album that spawned the hit “Tell Me.” Badu differentiates herself, of course, throwing in some scats and sass.
The album starts and ends with “Rim Shot,” on which Badu makes innuendos about a drummer hitting his stick against her drum, right in the center, that puts her on the cloud. An interesting choice of topic to start and close the album with, yet a fitting one for Badu, who we would come to find out simply doesn’t give a fuck about what anyone thinks. Regardless, the song is a bop and creates an instant sing-a-long moment.
Perhaps, though, Badu’s “Rim Shot” metaphor is a fitting one for speaking of her iconic Baduizm album in retrospect. Upon its introduction in 1997, the album was a “rim shot;” she struck R&B at its core and affected a release of warmth and all the best feels.
Twenty years later, we look back at Baduizm and can definitively say that it was a rim shot with lasting effects. We continue to feel its vibrations as its influence pulsates throughout today’s Neo-Soul landscape. Erykah Badu made a rim shot twenty years ago, and she called it Baduizm. It is now looked on fondly as the Bible of Neo-Soul. As always, you should spin the scripture at your leisure throughout the year, but today, on the Festival of Baduizm, it’s well deserving of a celebratory listen.
On & on, her cypher keeps moving like a rolling stone…