February 23, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
There's a war raging among the women of R&B, and at stake is nothing less than the soul of the music itself.
On one side are the slickly produced, ultra-fashionable, Barbie doll-perfect girl groups that have always been a part of the genre--outfits like the phenomenally popular, Grammy-nominated Destiny's Child. Pleasant enough on the eyes and ears, certainly. But artists of substance?
On the other side: a new class of earthy, passionate women whose beauty is equaled by their strength. They are outsold by the girl groups, but their work resonates much deeper. Among them: Macy Gray. Jill Scott. Lauryn Hill. And the undisputed leader of a movement that's been dubbed "natural R&B" or "neo-soul": Erykah Badu.
Released late last year, Badu's sophomore album, "Mama's Gun" (Motown), was the female response and perfect bookend to D'Angelo's masterful "Voodoo"--a dense, hypnotic and deeply spiritual effort with 15 languid grooves that flow into each other like a winding river.
Badu shared some key supporting players with D'Angelo--chief among them trumpet player Roy Hargrove and Roots drummer and producer Ahmir Thompson (who also powered Common's "Like Water for Chocolate"). But "Mama's Gun" was pure Badu, from the slinky, sexy, modern-day Billie Holiday vocals to the lyrical themes.
"Most of the time, you don't even know your mama has a gun, you know?" Badu told the Web site Hip Online when she was asked about the enigmatic title. "And when she pulls it out, and shows it to you, it's something serious. The way life is to me right now, we're at a very detrimental time: Our sons and daughters are going to need something to take with them for protection. So they can put my album in their holster, or on their lap, or on their seat. It would be a better thing to have."
Born Erica Wright in Dallas, Badu was reared by a single mother who worked as an actress in local stage productions. Mom passed the bug along to her daughter, and Erica first performed at the Dallas Theater Center at age 4.
Brought up on '70s soul (Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan were particular heroes), Erica fell hard for hip-hop in her teens, and she became a freestyle rapper known as M.C. Apples while attending Dallas' arts high school. Around the same time, she abandoned what she called her "slave name" and became Erykah (" `Kah' is the inner self, which can do no wrong") Badu (Arabic for "to manifest truth and light").
Badu was discovered in late 1995 by Legacy Entertainment head Tim Grace. At the time, she was performing in a hip-hop duo called Erykah Free with her cousin Robert "Free" Bradford. When record company offers started coming in, they were for Badu as a solo artist. Although she dedicated her debut to her cousin, the split was a bitter one.
"I was [ticked], to say the least," Bradford told Request magazine. "I feel like anybody in my situation would be. We talked. It was heated, you know what I'm saying?"
Released in early 1997, the album included songs such as "On & On" (which was inspired by "The Color Purple") and the prayerful "Certainly" that brought to mind a streetwise Sade. Badu mixed her jazzy, scatting delivery with grooves that were equal parts modern hip-hop and old-school soul. Standing proud in her African head wrap, Badu represented a newer, more real, Afrocentric sex symbol. "Baduizm" became a platinum hit, and the door was opened for a new group of female R&B singers.
Badu doesn't feel threatened by this competition.
"You know, any artist who feels the way I do, I get on their record, too--let's make it happen," the artist told Hip Online. "[I have] nothing to prove--I'm only in competition with my last level. There'll never be another `Baduizm,' another Erykah Badu, another Macy Gray. We were all born, and we all came to the music business with everything we had. Some of us just don't get a chance. So we basically represent the artists who are still often unheard. It's a good thing.
"We're all friends, inside the music and outside the music. I mean, we don't sound anything alike, we don't approach our music anything alike, but we come from the same genuine place. We want our music to be real and we don't want to compromise our art."
The sense of community among the natural R&B bands represents one of the most inspiring developments on the music scenes since the explosion of alternative-rock a decade ago. In addition to the sisterhood that Badu expresses for her female peers, and the artistic dialogue that she carries on with musicians such as Hargrove, Thompson and Guru, fans are fascinated by the lyrical dialogue that she's conducting with Andre "Dre" Benjamin of Outkast, her former boyfriend and the father of her 3-year-old son Seven.
One of the most gripping tracks on Outkast's brilliant "Stankonia" album is "Ms. Jackson," a song that Dre addressed to Badu's mother. In it, he promises that he will be a good father to Seven, even though his relationship with the boy's mother has ended.
Badu doesn't speak directly to this affair on "Mama's Gun," but she does talk plenty about the issues of family, personal responsibility, and self-respect in romance and in life in general. While she can lapse into new age philosophizing and preaching that is dangerously close at times to Oprah/O magazine territory, her distinctive mix of a sharp intellect, sincere emotions and a strong sense of humor ultimately prevails.
It's all honest, and it's all Badu. As the singer raps on "Cleva": "This is how I look without makeup/And with no bra my ninnies sag down low/My hair ain't never hung down to my shoulders/And it might not grow, ya never know/But I'm clever when I bust a rhyme/Clever always on ya mind/She's clever and I really wanna grow."
Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," the world's only rock 'n' roll talk show, from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesday on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit him on the Web at www.jimdero.com.