“The Queen of Neo-Soul”, Fort Greene resident Erykah Badu has played an integral role in extricating the roots of hip-hop from the moribund and vacuous stylizations that permeated the genre throughout the mid-to-late 90s (think the P. Diddy era). Closely associated with the Soulquarian collective – Philadelphia-based “live hip-hop” ensemble the Roots (currently Jimmy Fallon’s backing band on Late Night); eccentric producer J Dilla (whose instrumental collection Donuts, recorded as he succumbed to a terminal battle with lupus, is analogous to Nick Drake’s Pink Moon in its sepulchral forbearance); and rappers Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Q-Tip, and Common (the latter of whom she dated for many years) – Badu has balanced enviable commercial success with a strident dedication to preserving artistry in one of pop’s more rapacious spheres.
A native of Dallas, Badu’s (born Erica Johnson) name reflects her Afrocentric orientation – her surname is common among the Ashanti people of Ghana, while “kah” (or “ka”) denotes the inner spiritual self in numerous African cultures. After dropping out of Grambling State University to pursue music full-time, Badu’s Country Cousins demo tape garnered attention from several labels. Throughout the late nineties, Badu enjoyed a string of hits that set the foundation for the nascent genre of neo-soul; “Tyrone”, “You Got Me” (a collaboration with fellow soulstress Jill Scott), and “On and On” were noted for their dense lyrical inscrutability and eschewal of hip-hop’s materialistic stereotypes. Nor did she shy from outright social commentary, as “A.D. 2000” – an invective against the NYPD’s handling of the Amadou Diallo incident – attested to. These factors have contributed to Badu being frequently cited as a positive role model for young African-American women.
After spending most of the 2000s in seclusion and raising a family with longtime boyfriend, rapper Jay Electronica (best known for his sampling of outré film soundtracks and infrequent release schedule), Badu has returned to the forefront of R&B with the New Amerykah series, which finds her refracting the groove-oriented spirituality of the transitional Worldwide Underground (2003) into the mordant, gritty sound that was her initial trademark. Whether taking on the establishment in an agitprop manner rarely seen these days or adding a touch of sass to the braggadocio of her male counterparts, Badu will be a formidable force – and, we hope, a proud Brooklynite – for years to come.