Thursday, April 1, 2010

Erykah Badu: Married to this Rap Sh*t

Erykah Badu has done what many of her "neo-soul" peers of the 1990s haven't been able to. She reincarnates herself on each new musical offering, never duplicating the sound of her previous work but still managing to be Badu. Her identity is not lost with each new sonic experiment. The opposite is actually true. With each album, Badu peels back another layer of herself, consistently revealing more of why we love her so.

Being a musical chemist is oftentimes risky business, particularly with the urban music listener. Very few artists can constantly reinvent themselves and maintain their core fan base like Badu has. A few come to mind (Outkast, Kelis, Kanye, Bilal, Mos Def) but in the "neo-soul" category of the 90s, she really stands alone. India Arie, Jill Scott, and Musiq Soulchild have all pretty much stayed in their lanes while Badu continues to push her fans' musical envelopes.

Even with her venturing from sound to sound with each release, there is a consistent thread woven throughout her work: Hip-Hop. Whether the references are subtle or forthright, each Badu album is an ode to the genre that took the world by the collar and gave voices to millions of black kids stateside and abroad. On "Appletree" you can almost see her at an open mic getting all the Hip-Hop heads open with her smooth delivery and witty lines. "... & On" from Mama's Gun was the moment when I had to press pause and ask myself, "Is Badu SPITTING?" "Love of My Life" with Common put her love for Hip-Hop front and center. I remember wondering, "How is Hip-Hop the love of her life and she's a SINGER?" but she reiterated her stance on the female emcee laden remix and then again on her Hip-Hop hymn "The Healer" on New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War.

On her latest offering, New Amerykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh, Badu continues paying homage to the art form that has influenced so much of her work. With production from 9th Wonder and the late J. Dilla, she has two of Hip-Hop's greatest producers on deck even without a single rapper featured on the album. "Turn Me Away (Get Munny)" samples "You Can't Turn Me Away" by Sylvia Striplin, the same song Junior M.A.F.I.A's "Get Money" is derived from. B.I.G. makes another appearance through Badu on "Fall In Love" as she sings, "Slow singing, flower bringing, if my burglar alarm starts ringing." When I heard this song for the first time, my mind was blown, "Is she singing the lyrics to Big's 'Warning'?" Yes, yes she is. Who else but Badu could pull this off in a love song?

Her ties to Hip-Hop go deeper than references in her lyrics or gritty beats beneath her sweet vocals. All of Badu's children are by rappers and all of her public relationships have been with some of Hip-Hop's finest. Could it be that Badu's love for the culture is so deep that it personifies itself in the physical? One can only speculate but I don't think it's a coincidence that she is drawn to rappers and they to her.

After the birth of her youngest child, Mars, with Jay Electronica, people started wondering loudly about Badu having three children by three different rappers. "Y'all would be calling her a hoe if she didn't burn incense and wear a head wrap," they said. I'm sure she is getting the benefit of the doubt because she's an artist and is in a stable position to raise her children. Pookie down at the welfare would surely get the side-eye for having three kids by three guys but, Badu isn't out here waiting on a check. She's out here fusing funk, soul and Hip-Hop, challenging her fans to expand the boundaries of their musical taste buds. Her music is a challenge to the authority of genres, belief systems and traditions.

In addition to the three children she has birthed with rappers, she has created her own musical offspring as a testament to her marriage to Hip-Hop in both her personal and musical lives.