D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar was one of the first CDs I ever owned. That was back in the day when I was still in high school and had some disposable income. I was also a member of one of those music clubs like Columbia House, getting the six or seven CDs for a penny plus shipping and handling then paying regular price for the two or three I was obligated to buy. This was how I got both Erykah Badu’s Baduizm and Erykah Badu Live during my freshman year of undergrad.
A couple of years later as the entertainment editor of my college newspaper, I was one of those people chastising D’Angelo for waiting five years to release Voodoo and head over heels in love with Mama’s Gun and pre-black-woman-hating Maxwell’s Embrya. I think at this time, the word neo-soul had entered my lexicon and I had a way to identify artists like D’Angelo, Badu, Maxwell, Jill Scott and Lauryn Hill who were making music that didn’t quite sound the same as other contemporary R&B. This music was made for me.
I’m not sure when the name The Soulquarians came into my consciousness. It was probably some time during the early 2000s during my grad school days when I had money in the budget for magazines like The Fader, Black Book and Paste. I like these types of mags because they were the precursor to what we now call hipster culture: white guys who pride themselves on getting the jump on what’s new in the streets before everyone else as if their privilege doesn’t allow them the benefit of putting it out to the masses first. (Seriously, peep the ones who pride themselves for IDing Five Percenter philosophy in “On & On”). Of course, the one face I recognized in the collective was Badu, but it included others I would get to know: Questlove of The Roots, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), Bilal, James Poyser and Common. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were also already familiar to me since I grew up on A Tribe Called Quest, but I would not know J Dilla’s true legacy until after his premature death.
But over time, the Soulquarians have shown themselves to be not simply a collective of friends and musicians but some of the most influential and creative sources in the music industry for nearly the past 20 years. For me, this primarily comes out through Badu even though it is somewhat satisfying to see the rise of The Roots in the mainstream and the lionizing of J Dilla’s legacy.
Badu has been on next-level status since she emerged nationally in 1996 with “On & On.” Not only has her music been consistently on point, but she has also taken Black female identity to task. Perhaps she has not had a bigger breakthrough in the mainstream is because this mainstream tried to dismiss her as a flake in the beginning rather than acknowledge that there are indeed such things as quirky and carefree Black girls and women. She’s almost like the mother of the current surge in the visibility of the carefree Black girl social media have now made possible.
While her image has been essential to fans like me, her music has been even more so. Badu merges and twists styles, but she remains recognizable. Sometimes her old school meets new school takes us back to a golden age of soul and other times it leads us straight into the future. Like much of the neo-soul, funk music made during the time, it’s hard to pinpoint just when Badu released her music. “Other Side of the Game” is steeped deeply in 70s R&B and funk, making it just as home alongside Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be with You” or “Physical Love” as it is with The Brand New Heavies “Sometimes.” Of course, “On & On” introduced her to the country and Badu became the female counterpart to D’Angelo and further opened the door Meshell Ndegeocello kicked in with 1993’s Plantation Lullabies.
Badu doesn’t know how to make a bad album. It’s safe to say that everything she’s created thus far is perfection. However, Mama’s Gun will forever remain her masterpiece. Those of us who remember buying the CD will remember that the track listing on the jewel case didn’t match the order of the track list. But Badu was kind enough to include a note on the actual CD that she changed the order at the last minute.
What we got was an opus that began with the energy and vibe of rock in “Penitentiary Philosophy” and eventually mellowed into a confessional concerning her private life gone public with “Green Eyes.” In between is an exploration of Black womanhood and experience that eschews respectability politics and embraces complexity. In a way, Mama’s Gun is the perfect album about Black female existence.
Existential tracks like “Didn’t Cha Know” sit alongside more grounded tracks like “Booty.” Badu even addresses criticisms of her first album with “& On.” But these meditations on life and love are not the typical drivel that permeates a good portion of pop music. The music of Mama’s Gun takes you to that place you need to be right at that moment in time.
Perhaps this is why Badu has remained such a beloved figure among her fans even when she takes a few years between album releases. The indie culture that prided itself on recognizing the Afrocentric elements of Baduizm aligned itself with the mainstream culture that reviewed “Bag Lady” as her song about homelessness. (Seriously, someone thought the song was about homelessness.) Her album Worldwide Underground was dismissed as an EP by those expecting her to deliver another edition of Mama’s Gun.
Instead, Badu delved deeper into afrofuturism that included homages to the past as well as a look toward the future. During this Frustrated Artists period, she embraced her freaquency and created a work that does in a way resemble a mixtape yet remains a complete album. She featured several guests on the album including Lenny Kravitz handling electric guitar on “Back in the Day” and Ded Prez spitting a verse on “Steady on the Grind.” Zap Mama provided additional vocals for the “Bump It” opener. However, her collaboration with Bahamadia, Queen Latifah and Angie Stone (who pays tribute to her days in The Sequence) for the “Love of My Life Worldwide” track made womanism a crucial part of the album.
While Worldwide Underground may have been born of Badu’s attempt to re-find her creative control, it was not indicative of the direction she would take when she would finally release her follow-up four years later. New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) had more of the fluid album feel of Mama’s Gun even though it clearly reflected the afrofuturist themes Badu has carried her entire career. The opening track “Amerykahn Promise” has all the energy of a blaxploitation soundtrack, creating an explosion of 70s funk that Badu is adept at constructing. There are the experimental touches she has also used in many of her works, this time turning what sounds like a toy xylophone into a transition between “Me” and “My People.”
However, the album is notable to me for a couple of reasons. The sample of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddy’s Dead” in the track “Master Teacher” caught my ear. This was also my introduction to fellow creative and beat maker Georgia Anne Muldrow. Georgia’s call “what if there were no niggas only master teachers” prompts the now ubiquitous response “I stay woke.” In fact, Georgia provides the vocals for the first couple of verses before Badu emerges from the background. Badu has always known how to use collaborators and works well with fellow ingenues. I mean “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Janelle Monae…
Of course, the album was released with a bouncy banger “Honey.” Interestingly, it is credited as a bonus track on the album. Forever compelling with her visuals, Badu introduced the song with a video depicting various well-known album covers from a plethora of artists including The Ohio Players, Labelle, The Beatles and Minnie Riperton. Furthermore, she gave of the counterpart to her ex’s memorable video “Hey Ya” as well as a recreation of the famous John and Yoko Rolling Stone cover.
Badu would release other singles from New Amerykah, but it would be another three years before the promised second part would appear, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh. This time, her lead single would harken back to the mellowness of Baduizm, but the visuals became even more daring. The lead single “Window Seat” found Badu progressively stripping off her clothing as she strolled through downtown Dallas. Yes, she strips all the way naked. However, once she reaches the grassy knoll where Kennedy was shot, she is shot in the head.
Instead of blood, we see the word “groupthink” pour from her head. We then hear the rationale for the nudity from Badu’s voice:
“They who play it safe, are quick to assassinate what they don’t understand. They move in packs, ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another. They feel more comfortable in groups, less guilt to swallow. They are us. This is what we have become, afraid to respect the individual.”
Impressively, Badu and the director Coodie employed a guerrilla style of filmmaking, getting the shot in just a few minutes then running like hell. Of course, the video was met with some controversy as well as the support of many fans. Badu did find herself in court after the video was released.
While the entire album is a testament to Badu’s endurance and talent as an artist, she only released one more single, dividing the 10-minute album ender “Out of Time, Just in Time” into two parts. Badu does an interpretive dance to the ballad, reminding viewers she has had training in acting and dance and has often directed her own videos.
In fact, Badu has made more contributions to Black women than maybe we even realize. She has proven herself a formidable actress with roles such as Rose Rose in The Cider House Rules (1999) and Lady in House of D (2004). And yes we’re all still waiting to see her as Stagecoach Mary in the Black western They Die By Dawn (please release this film already!).
Her soundtrack credits are also off the charts. She contributed “A Child with the Blues” to the Eve’s Bayou (1997) soundtrack. She covered her favorite artist Chaka Khan for the Bamboozled (2000) soundtrack with “Hollywood.” “Southern Girl” appeared on the Pootie Tang (2001) soundtrack.
But perhaps her contribution to the Brown Sugar (2002) soundtrack best captures why Badu means so much to us. With one song, Badu took us through our love affair with hip hop. “Love of My Life.” Not only did the song perfectly capture the spirit of the film, but it also took us through the journey of hip hop itself. The accompanying video saw Badu not only paying homage to the pioneers of the culture but also including them for the world to see. Seriously, this video was the very first time I ever saw DJ Kool Herc although I’d heard his name for years.
For 20 years, Erykah Badu has been the sistamother of quirky Black girls, the analog girl in a digital world moving at her own pace and making the world conform to her. She is the spirit of the Soulquarians. She calls on her foremothers like Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange, aligning herself with Black feminism of the 70s and acknowledging its affect on Black women and girls today. Her legacy will be just as important as J Dilla’s and the men she stands beside.