Erykah Badu, known variously over the past decade as the Queen of Neo-soul, the Nefertiti of Hip-hop, and the Woman Who Wears That Thing on Her Head, sat on her couch rubbing Blue Magic conditioner into her daughter’s hair, tying clumps together and wrapping them with rubber bands while she talked about the giant, red, mazelike circle painted on the floor at her feet. “Actually, it’s not a maze,” she said. “A maze is designed to puzzle. It’s a labyrinth—there’s one entrance and one way to the center. It kind of looks like a brain. It’s very meditative. The labyrinth is an ancient symbol; you find them all over Europe and Asia. I wanted to create a nourishing environment, a place I could retreat to when things got too busy for me.”
I couldn’t tell if Puma, who is two and a half years old, with light skin and puffed cheeks, was more unhappy about what was being done to her hair or sharing her mother’s attention with a stranger. She squirmed and fussed, stretching her head out of reach, then climbed down and stood on the floor, glaring. The 35-year-old Badu asked Ysheka, one of her assistants, to bring a bottle, and when it came, the toddler climbed back into her mother’s lap and drank quietly.
Badu’s three other assistants—Denise, Sharlene, and Alfredo—hustled around in their bare feet, cleaning, making phone calls, getting things ready for the afternoon. It was just after eleven on an October morning at Badu’s house on the shores of White Rock Lake, in East Dallas. I was there to spend a day with her, to find out just what a Dallas R&B star does with her time, especially one approaching her ten-year anniversary in the pop music limelight, a year that by all rights should see her finishing up her fifth album, the one that her record label and her fans have been expecting since 2005.
I had already learned something that morning about waiting for Badu. She had been in her home studio until five in the morning, so we had started our interview almost two hours late. Badu admits that her own conception of the temporal rarely coincides with the one used by people who wear watches. Now, holding her daughter, she talked, again in her own way, about time. “The last ten years have been like a circle,” she said, “going back to Chinese astrology. I got my record deal in 1996, which was the Year of the Pig, and my first album came out in 1997. I was born in 1971, which was also the Year of the Pig. And 2007 will be the Year of the Pig again. I know this year will be special.”
The smell of peppermint incense mixed with the music of seventies Motown songwriter Willie Hutch, which was playing on the turntable in the next room (Hutch was raised in Dallas and later composed the music for the blaxploitation flick Foxy Brown). “I am creative” and “I love myself” proclaimed signs on the wall. “Love Animals Don’t Eat Them” and “Be Green” announced bumper stickers on a nearby stove. A box of art supplies sat on a cluttered table next to a couple of palettes of dried orange and purple paint; on the wall were paintings of and by mom and her other child, nine-year-old son Seven. A piano and guitar sat next to the fireplace, and a hundred thin stalactites of colored candle wax descended from the mantel. A sign near the front door read “God Bless Our Pad.”
The labyrinth lay in the center of the large downstairs room of Badu’s house, what you might call the music-and-art room, though every room there is a music-and-art room. Next to the couch was the study area, with posters (“Emotions,” “Numbers,” “Days of the Week”) and a whiteboard, where Badu teaches Puma, as she did Seven before. Across the room were a child’s keyboard and drums and a large photo of Seven—who looks a lot like his father, André Benjamin, of OutKast—banging on them. On the other side was a collection of some of the magazine covers Badu has been on— Hits, Vibe, plus a huge reproduction of a September 2003 Ebony cover, with Badu in a giant Afro. Next to the covers was a cabinet that held some twenty trophies, including her four Grammys.
A decade ago Badu became one of the biggest R&B stars in the world when she released her debut album, Baduizm, a minimalist soul masterpiece that reached number two on the Billboard pop charts and eventually sold three million copies. Baduizm helped usher in a new movement that some people called “neo-soul”—Afrocentric music with a seventies vibe but a nineties hip-hop edge. It helped that Badu cloaked herself in her heritage, wearing a Yoruba headdress called a gele on her album cover as well as on tour. She would spend the next ten years being a rarity in pop music, a bona fide iconoclast, doing basically what she wanted. She made two more studio albums, each completely different from the one before. Her sound was influenced by Lauryn Hill, of the Fugees, but also Chaka Khan and Joni Mitchell, and she was as likely to draw on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. She appeared in movies such as The Cider House Rules. She toured when she felt like it and acted in local Dallas theater. She had two children by two men. She bought a house in Dallas and lived in it.
I noted to Badu that most musicians from Dallas who make it big, from T-Bone Walker to Edie Brickell, get out of town as soon as they can. “That’s what celebrities do,” she responded. “I never wanted to be a celebrity. My first job is not music. I love it; I especially love to perform, especially here. I’m an artist by religion. I paint, draw, sew, design clothes, sculpt, build,