Erykah Badu is an eccentric. The South Dallas–born artist—heralded as the queen of neo-soul—is a metropolitan Afrofuturist who is Southern to her core. Her pioneering music is a cosmic blend of art-house, Blue Note, Def Jam, and Motown in a way that hasn’t been replicated since her 1997 debut, Baduizm. Try as they may, there’s nobody quite like Badu—on or off the track.
On most women, her outfits would look like something Arrested Development’s Rita Leeds pulled together in the dark, but thanks to the type of je ne sais quoi only a star can possess, she’s a fashion icon seen in everything from gold grills to Tom Ford to ornate costumes. There are long-running sexist jokes about how a romance with Badu can radically alter a man’s personality and wardrobe, but this is something she’s heavily leaned in to herself, selling incense called “Badu Pussy,” with a product description that (hopefully) claims in jest that they’re “created with the ashes of Badu’s underwear.” She has served as a birthing doula for Summer Walker and Teyana Taylor (and also, quite randomly, a contributor at Vogue). She is somehow a major force in the current political climate. While she didn’t coin the term, Badu did bring “woke” firmly into the mainstream with her 2008 song “Master Teacher.” Back then, it meant you were aware of things and maybe endorsed a hotep conspiracy theory or two. Now a man running for president is making almost his entire platform about the new, dog-whistling version of “woke.” Her marquee song isn’t “On & On,” which she won a Grammy for in 1998, nor is it 2010’s “Window Seat,” which is accompanied by a controversial video that sees Badu stripping naked in Dealey Plaza before getting assassinated—it’s “Tyrone,” a track that’s only featured on a live album and was improvised on the spot during its recording. Badu is endlessly enigmatic. She is a strange person but also a vanguard—a real artist who’s sensitive about her shit.
Though it’s been thirteen years since Badu released a proper album, she is currently in the midst of a milestone summer tour. The Unfollow Me tour began in San Antonio on June 11 at the AT&T Center and culminates in a hometown stop in Dallas at the American Airlines Center on July 23. Across 25 cities, Badu and supporting act Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) perform in arenas in all but one stop. A typical Badu tour has the singer hitting theaters, with only the occasional concert in buildings large enough to house professional sports teams. Somehow, at 52, with the zenith of her career as a recording artist seemingly in the rearview, Badu is the biggest she’s ever been. Her last major hit hasn’t charted in about two decades, so it’s not clear why she’d embark on her first stadium tour at this point in her career. The Verzuz with Jill Scott (another founding mother of neo-soul) and her Quarantine Concert Series live streams during the early days of the pandemic may have kindled a desire for Badu to hit the road, and those moments provided fans with an interest to see the artist perform in the flesh.
Watching Badu put on a show fits the description of watching a master at work. In the handful of times I’ve seen her in Dallas, I’ve been struck by her commanding presence and arresting voice. Her performances bear her influences with aplomb. There’s a little Pink Floyd and George Clinton for a psychedelic tinge, a hint of Joni Mitchell that brings out the flower child, a bit of A Tribe Called Quest and Outkast that gesture toward the inner b-girl, and some Betty Davis and Prince to bring out the funk and the rock star.
At one point, she had two different bands. One was an analog version, a live band called RC & The Gritz, fronted by keyboardist RC Williams. The band hosted a legendary jam session and open mic Wednesday nights at the Prophet Bar in Deep Ellum where folks like Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, a pre-fame Leon Bridges, and Badu herself have graced the stage. The Cannabinoids were the digital version, also fronted by RC Williams, her former music director. This band featured an amalgam of Texas-based producers including Symbolyc One, who has production credits for Beyoncé, Drake, Lorde, and Madonna.
The two bands brought a different energy to each performance. The Cannabinoids helped emphasize Badu’s hip-hop roots with 808s, swagger, and rattling bass. With RC & The Gritz, Badu’s sets accentuate her soulful nature. It’s an experience that’s a lot more like bare feet in the grass under a bright moon sipping loose-leaf green tea. The best show I’ve ever seen of hers was at the Prophet Bar on a Wednesday night on Thanksgiving Eve in 2014. It was a special set in honor of RC & The Gritz’s jam sessions. Badu didn’t even hit the stage until after midnight and performed well after 2 a.m., which you definitely aren’t supposed to do. No one at the venue shut it down.
Currently, Badu plays the Factory in Deep Ellum every year, usually in late February for her birthday. The scene plays looser and freer than your average concert with special guests and speeches. The 2020 show, which took place weeks before the world was forever changed by COVID, featured a pole dancer, Thundercat, Tierra Wack, Trapboy Freddy, and a six-hour run time. At this year’s birthday bash which had Bun B, Maxo Kream, Raekwon, and Dallas artists BigXthaPlug, Spaceboifresh, and Zach Witness as guests, Badu received the first-ever key to Deep Ellum. Though it’s not the same in scale or lore quite yet, the massive party is reminiscent of Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic. It’s a tradition in celebration of a legacy act—a Mount Rushmorian figure in Texas music history.
Although a collaboration effort with the producer Madlib was recently teased in an interview, concrete plans for another Badu album haven’t been announced, and you probably shouldn’t hold your breath for one either. Badu has never been a prolific artist and has as many interests as she does aliases. (The latest is the weed game.) She is an artist that’s constantly creating something, and that’s not always new music for the public’s consumption.
The Unfollow Me tour, while a crowning achievement, also speaks to how Badu’s eccentricity, or “free thinking,” isn’t always a good thing. In an interview with Vibe, she revealed the inspiration for the name of the tour—cancel culture. “Whenever someone says something in the comments, they don’t agree, I don’t care, unfollow me, doesn’t matter,” she told the magazine. What she’s speaking about are the numerous controversial statements she’s made over the years, like defending R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and even Adolf Hitler, and saying that it’s natural for heterosexual males to be attracted to young women in revealing skirts in a conversation sparked by a discussion about high school girls, dress codes, and their male teachers. Badu is proof that the free thinker really isn’t thinking at all sometimes. She’s the latest in a long line of elders whose political opinions might be best left ignored. Maybe she’s a little bit more like Morrissey than Willie in that regard. She makes beautiful, timeless music, and is liable to put her foot in her mouth at a moment’s notice. Maybe you should unfollow Badu. On Twitter though, not Spotify.
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