ST. PHILIP, Barbados — It was yet another balmy night in this island paradise and the sold-out crowd attending the 15th Annual Barbados Jazz Festival, were anxiously waiting for the queen of neo-soul to hit the stage at Farley Hill, an outdoor venue overlooking the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
It was a long wait, but once Erykah Badu, sauntered on stage in a colorful kimono topped by an afro wig with at least a one-foot wingspan, she didn’t disappoint. She sang, changed costumes and even jumped down into the audience making her way through the lawn chairs and the beach blankets to reach out and touch.
After a nearly two-hour set, the engaging 36-year-old mother of two kicked off her six-inch platform shoes and was carried off stage and into an open tent where she exhaled. About 30 minutes later an energized Badu emerged in a bathrobe and talked about her five-year absence from the recording studio, her new CD “New Amerykah: 4th World War” that drops Feb. 26, new media and that neo-soul moniker that she just can’t seem to shake.
She spoke in friendly, but matter-of-fact tones accented by a slight Texas drawl. At times she was equal parts preacher, teacher, good girlfriend and comedian, spouting lines such as: “Being humble is so 2007.”
If that’s so, making it up to her fans for the long drought is her mantra in ’08. The four-time Grammy winner who said she had been loaning her talents to the projects of other artists on the DL, has basically been MIA since her “Worldwide Underground” CD dropped in 2003 and sold less than 1 million copies.
“I love what I do so much that I could never be gone for too long. I would like to think of myself as an oven instead of a microwave,” she said, sitting atop a table in a tent adjacent to her makeshift dressing room. “It takes time for this kind of stuff. Actually, I’m a recording artist on the side, I’m a performing artist. What you saw me do on stage, that’s what I do for a living. I also like to record, too, when I have an opportunity. My first job actually is being a mom.”
Becoming a digital girl
While Badu was at home in Dallas surfing the net with her son Seven and nursing her daughter Puma, she discovered that she could no longer be “an analog girl in a digital world.” Once bitten, Badu had producers sending her tracks via instant messaging that she would later transfer to Garage Band, mixing in her own beats and vocals.
Slideshow: Ladies of R&B Badu produced so many songs that she not only had enough tracks to record “4th World War,” but two other CDs in the “New Amerykah” trilogy that will be released later this year. The “4th World War” CD will be released with a coded USB stick that will allow buyers to download songs from the second CD over a period of 10 months.
“In one year I had about 55 songs done,” she said. “I didn’t have to travel back-and-forth to the studio, I didn’t have to work with two-inch tape, which takes a long time. I would send the digital track and it would be transferred to tape. By the time I got to the studio everything was done. All I had to do was put salt and pepper on it.”
Many of those songs like “Honey,” the first release off of “4th World War,” have that distinctive Badu sound first heard on 1997’s “Baduizm.” They called it neo-soul, a tag that Badu feels a little uneasy about. That might explain whey she was holding up a sign reading “Neo-soul is dead” on the sleeve of her last CD.
Just what is neo-soul?
“What’s funny about neo-soul is that I don’t even know what it is,” Badu said with a straight face. “I know what the two words mean, but that term was thrust upon myself and D’Angelo by Kedar Massenburg, who is the president of the label that signed me. He has a talent for spotting underground music that he feels is the next wave. I guess that’s what neo-soul is to Kedar, a new wave of soul.”
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It’s not that Badu is totally rejecting the concept, she just doesn’t want it to define her.
“I accept it but I don’t want to be called the queen of it or anything because I’m going to change and then everybody’s gonna be disappointed,” she said. “I feel like the term is brilliant, but it’s not me. It’s one part of me. I hear some music and songs by new singers and one song I had is their whole style. So, that’s neo-soul I guess. I don’t feel like I created it. I feel like I may have poked a hole in the dam and let out all of the flood waters that were to the left to come through.”
She’s certainly drowning in the pool of creativity in ’08. Badu, who made her acting debut in “The Cider House Rules,” is looking at scripts again, and is also planning on publishing her own lifestyle magazine called Freaq. She says the first issue, scheduled for July, will be very “Oprah-esque.”
“I’ll be on the cover, page eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12,” she said with a smile.
“I think I’m at my peak in every kind of way right now,” she added. “My mom told me it would come. I have not worked this hard in my life. I am the laziest artist you would ever want to meet. I just want to come and do the show. No interviews, no makeup, I just want to do it and be done. But this is my 36th year on the earth and I have a plethora of experiences and information and knowledge and mistakes to share with the world. Thus, the three albums, thus the magazine, thus the USB stick. It’s just a very, very interesting time in my life.
“I feel good today. That’s all I can say.”
Miki Turner is currently co-producing a documentary with actor/director Bill Duke on girls in gangs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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