Illustration by Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia
Erykah Badu's most recent volume of teachings came in the form of a mixtape released in 2015: But You Caint Use My Phone, which was centered around the bliss and failure of communication. On the tape, Badu adapted the New Edition classic "Mr. Telephone Man," a hopeless ode about disconnection, and what was most arresting about her version of the song was the atmosphere around it. Under a crackling echo chamber, Badu's soft background vocals fade out like lost time ("I called a thousand times..." "Trouble on the line…"), as if she's broadcasting into an abyss. This is the gift she's consistently offered throughout her career: singing in and between the lines, sending existential missives out into space.
The introduction of Badu as a healing philosopher and black bohemian matriarch took place twenty years ago, beginning with a series of proverbs in "On & On." Her debut Baduizm was released in 1997, and "neo-soul" was coined as a throwback-situated genre to set it apart from the new-jack and radio R&B of the time. (In time, the genre was exhausted and disowned by those who resisted labels, including Badu.) There were singers who delivered on mirroring angst, but no one was quite as good as Badu—just 24-years-old at this point—at performing a soulful read that succinctly informed you about yourself.
Whether you were in the headspace to receive it or not, her voice compelled you to consume her thesis—to fall into her smoky, Billie Holliday-style jazz riffs and arrangements that were inspired by the lightness of Brandy's self-titled 1994 debut (an influence Badu herself has cited). Badu's artistic energy was spent parsing and intellectualizing big ideas and experiences: the stress of dating a drug dealer or a detached partner; loving two people at once. This was the work of a big thinker who siphoned curiosity and swathed it in riddles, humor, and Southern inflection ("I was born underwater/ With three dollars and six dimes/ Yeah, you may not laugh/ Coz you did not do your math").
It seemed like she knew the world, or at least that life was worth the search for clarity. There wasn't uncertainty when she refused to be controlled on "Certainly," but there was some in "No Love" and "Next Lifetime," a spiritual confession of forbidden love. In a 1997 cover story, Badu told Vibe about "On & On": "The lyrics were inspired by the gods and the earths, the mathematics and the science I was learning at the time. Not the arithmetic, but the physics of life. I had four minutes to get all of that into one song—everything that I had ever wanted to say about the good things that happened and the knowledge I had acquired up to that point."
In 1992, five years before the release of Baduizm, Julie Dash's Daughters of a Dust entered theaters. The film was a sweeping generational epic about a Gullah family's turn-of-the-century migration from St. Helena Island to the U.S. mainland. Re-released last year and screened this month as part of a brilliant black female directors film series at BAM, the film has an audacious, uncluttered aesthetic—a tapestry that's paralyzingly gorgeous and profound. In one scene, matriarch Nana Peazant tells her great-grandson, "Eli, I'm trying to learn you how to touch your own spirit." Twenty-five years later, the film's lessons remain vast, its expanse unfathomable. While Baduizm isn't so weighty (no art quite matches Dash's intensity), Badu—the sage in a head wrap who spoke in Five Percenter language and referred to herself as a god—could have well been a soothsaying descendant of the Peazant women.
Like the film, Badu's freeform songwriting (she wrote the majority of Baduizm, save for "4 Leaf Clover") is a product of spacious simplicity; it was the ancestral storyteller in her, mixed with remnants of her younger days as a rapper, that made her the perfect vessel for intimate drum tracks with loose flows yet clear narrative devices. The breezy "Appletree," for instance, opens with colorful scene-setting: "It was a stormy night/ You know the kind where the lightning strikes/ And I was hanging out with some of my artsy friends, oowee-oowee-ooh." Later in the song, Badu rationalizes her approach to friendship ("I picks my friends like I pick my fruit") and broadly insists, "I work at pleasing me coz I can't please you," slinging inarguable logic.
To cap the year of her debut, Badu performed her genius freestyle "Tyrone"—the kicker of which is the title of the abovementioned mixtape—at a concert in Washington, D.C. The song, later released as a live recording, was yet another reminder that all the truth Badu kicked about reincarnation, trees, and reflections on a broke dude, came from a reservoir of deep, black thought.
Clover Hope is a senior writer for Jezebel. You can follow her on Twitter.