Badu spreads 'love energy' to adoring crowd


June 30, 2003

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

The musical component of the annual Taste of Chicago festival kicked off in ultra-cool style Friday evening with a typically laidback and groovy performance by neo-soul/natural R&B chanteuse Erykah Badu.

Gearing up for the fall release of her third album, the Dallas native thrilled the massive crowd in front of Grant Park's Petrillo Music Shell by leisurely unveiling all of her many guises: the swinging, scat-singing jazz hipster, the casually cool hip-hopper, the ribald R&B diva and the inspirational New Age icon.

"Wherever love is, God is," Badu announced toward the end of her 90-minute set, the climax of a long speech that found her earnestly explaining her personal progress through her many "chakras" while championing "love energy" over "hate energy."

This kind of preaching can become tedious outside of church or "Oprah," but Badu--resplendent in white jeans, a black leather jacket and a giant Afro--knows how to heighten the impact of her hippie-ish message with irresistible, free-flowing grooves.

Trading the big, sweating 10-piece band that powered her 2001 shows on the "Mama's Gun" tour in favor of a tight and focused combo consisting of drums, percussion, keyboards, bass, flute, backing vocals and a DJ, the self-professed "analog girl in a digital world" dictated the rhythmic shifts in futuristic style by hammering out the beats on an electronic drum pad set up in front of her microphone stand.

As one song ebbed and flowed into another with the effect of creating one long and sensual tune, the former Erica Wright luxuriated in the incense that wafted from the stage, occasionally paused to sip on a thermos of herbal tea, and showed the full range of a vocal talent that can growl like the meanest rapper or soar like an angelic gospel singer.

"People always tryin' to find the world I'm in/I'm the envy of the women and I rule the men," she sang, and this certainly seemed to be true of her many fans on this lovely June evening.

That song, "... & On," was a highlight of a set that included many of them ("Penitentiary Blues" and "Otherside of the Game" were some others), and which found her significant other, the Chicago-bred rapper Common, turning up to show his support.

By the end of the evening, the crowd was picking up her backing singer's trademark chant of "Badu, Badu, Badu," and the star was basking in the warm glow.

"I love what I do," she said. "And I love the platform that I have." And it was clear once more that she does.