Q&A

Hair Apparent

The reigning queen of neo-soul has switched her crown and gone ''Underground.'' Find out what's on Erykah Badu's mind.

Erykah Badu | ALL 'FRO LOVE Badu says many friends helped with ''Underground''
Image credit: Erykah Badu: Rob D. Cohen/Retna
ALL 'FRO LOVE Badu says many friends helped with ''Underground''

Brandishing a voice like Billie, bass lines à la Ron Carter, and beats reminiscent of the Roots, Erykah Badu burst onto the music scene in 1997 with her surprise hit ''Baduizm,'' fist raised and ready to reclaim the urban charts for patchouli-burning Afro-hippies everywhere. The dreadlocked diva spearheaded a sultry yet spiritually minded subgenre that quickly came to be called neo-soul, paving the way for artists like Jill Scott, India.arie, and Musiq, while scoring herself four Grammys in the process.

But despite a promising kickoff, the movement failed to displace grittier, more libidinous hybrids of hip-hop and R&B on the pop charts. Neo-soul practitioners mostly remain novelty acts with natural hair and no hits (Bilal, Angie Stone). Even ''Mama's Gun,'' Badu's epic 2000 follow-up to ''Baduizm,'' was a critical success more than a commercial one. Nevertheless, a half dozen years after her debut, set to release her loose, lush ''Worldwide Underground EP,'' a new-do'd Badu, 31, is still all about lighting incense and spreading those positive vibes.

Why release an EP this time instead of an album?
An EP is five to seven songs, I believe, and a full-length is 10 or more. And I only had five to seven. [Laughs] Every song is pretty long, too. Each is like 7 to 10 minutes.

You once said that whenever you finish a project the label takes it and runs with it. How so?
I am the artist and I would say the label [is] the framer. They put the art in the frame that they want. It's not always the frame that I had in mind [laughs]. But it's a frame indeed.

Why the name ''Worldwide Underground''?
I started [recording] this album on my tour bus on a world tour. Every city we'd go to I'd be inspired to do something new that night on the bus. When I was in Belgium, I met up with [Zap Mama's Marie Daulne]. She came on the bus and added her part. When I went through Miami, Lenny Kravitz got on the bus and put his guitar down on a song that he liked. I went through London; Caron Wheeler did something. Just kind of like a freestyle session that turned into an EP.

But the EP doesn't sound like the music of cramped buses and restless nights on the road.
Music doesn't [have to resemble] its atmosphere at all -- doesn't matter where you make it, whether it's a basement or your grandmother's garage.

How do you think this art will be ''framed''?
Who knows? We had a good time [making it], no restraints. I don't have any expectations.

''Mama's Gun'' sold about half as many copies as your debut. How do you feel about that?
A lot of people tell me that it was slept on. I don't know. I've never sold more than [3] million records ever.

You went from dreadlocks on your debut, to a bald head on your second album, to an Afro this time around. Can we tell anything about your musical mood from your hairdo?
You'll have to keep looking at my career and see how it goes. I never have a specific plan to change, but when I feel the urge, I don't hesitate.

Is the 'fro real?
It's a wig, but I do have a little Afro underneath it -- a little baby Afro.

You programmed many of the beats on this album yourself. You even rap a little, and there aren't nearly as many players on this as on your last. Are you trying to become self-sufficient?
There weren't a lot of people on my bus.

You, D'Angelo, and others are responsible for sparking a musical trend that simple writers like me call neo-soul. Do you even agree with that description?
On the front of my EP it says ''neo-soul is dead.'' I don't even know what it was. There wasn't such a thing as ''neo-soul'' before I came out. I think [Motown label honcho] Kedar Massenburg coined the phrase ''neo-soul songstress'' [to describe me]. It's a great name, but it's like being called ''super 12th grader'' and then you go to college.

By the way, do you have an Afro pick?
Yeah, I do.

Does it have a Black Power fist on it?
Yeah. Heh!

You're getting the 2003 Aretha Franklin Award for Entertainer of the Year at this year's Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards. Your song ''Love of My Life'' is nominated in three other categories: Best R&B/Soul Single, Solo; R&B/Soul or Rap Song of the Year; and Best R&B/Soul or Rap Music Video. Have you figured out what any of those distinctions mean?
Uh-uh. But I'm very grateful. Anytime somebody wants to honor the music, I show up. Win or lose, I'm there.

Originally posted Sep 05, 2003 Published in issue #726 Sep 05, 2003 Order article reprints
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