Photo by Gina Diaz Erykah Badu, Mistress of the Universe at Miami's American Airlines Arena
With Bilal and Robert Glasper
American Airlines Arena, Miami
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Erykah Badu's video for her latest single, "Window Seat," features the neo-soul singer sprinting through downtown Dallas, stripping off baggy sweatclothes to her essence, and what she characterizes in interviews as being "assassinated" by groupthink, a psychological term referring to individuals who stick dangerously close to the views of those around them. The spray of mainstream press following her very public disrobing, is reminiscent of the uproar that followed fellow Soulquarian D'Angelo after he released a clip for the sensual nod to Prince, "Untitled (How Does it Feel)," a decade ago.
The Roots' drummer/producer ?uestlove contends in an interview with the Believer that as a result of the D'Angelo video, which features the singer naked to the waist and then some (and was also filmed in one continuous shot), chants of "take it off" soon overwhelmed every performance of the young singer's career that followed. Ten years later, D'Angelo has yet to release another album, and recently made unsavory news for allegedly offering a New York policewoman $40 in exchange for oral sex.
Leading up to Erykah Badu's hour-and-a-half performance Thursday at American Airlines Arena's Waterfront Theatre, half-explanations of her "Window Seat" video circulated, and citizens who have never heard a note from New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh posted questions about what sort of onstage (and audience) stunts might accompany her.
From the moment she strode onstage --
wearing a familiar purple zip-up hoodie, gray sweatpants rolled up to
the knee, and black boots with a pointy heel approaching 20 feet tall -- it was immediately apparent
that no group can think, let alone perform, quite like Erykah Badu. Her outfit eventually evolved into a varsity letter jacket and a white top hat as ostentatious as anything Johnny Depp wore in Alice in Wonderland.
Flanked by a Mac laptop and an MPC-type beat generator (that would later come in handy for N.W.A. and Slick Rick covers), Badu referred
to herself as "analog in a digital world" and found the bluest notes to convey "Out My Mind, Just in Time," a slow piano jazz
tune from the recently released New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the
Ankh in which she pegs herself as "a recovering undercover
over-lover/ recovering from a love I can't get over." All the while, her
ten-piece band, highlighted by three female backup singers, a flute man
echoing Gil Scott-Heron's early work, keyboards, and loads of rhythm of
both the digital and analog ilk, would watch Badu's waving right hand
Despite repeated interruptions -- "Me," from New Amerykah Part One:
4th World War, came off almost like a stand-up act as she shushed
her band to deliver lines like "my ass and legs have gotten thick" and
"had two babies, different dudes" to uproars from the crowd -- Badu
showed a commitment to performing each song to completion.
The night's gradual build, which began with an almost sulk through fresh track
"20 Feet Tall," was full-on frenzy by the time she reached the
head-nodder "Back in the Day (Puff)," from 2003's Worldwide
Underground, which segued into that blistering section she recorded
for the Outkast ATLiens classic "Liberation." At song's end, she gave her lyrics like a litany to her followers: "Try to stay sane, it's the price of fame/ Spending your life trying to
numb the pain/ You shake that load off and sing a song/ Liberate the
minds, then you go on home."
Before she went on home, though, the chants from the crowd began: "Ty-Rone, Ty-Rone, Ty-Rone." Would the literal and/or figurative clothes come off?
Badu tossed oldie-but-goodies like Baduizm's "On & On" into the set earlier, but as
the night came to a close, she was resolute to end the night on her own
terms, and not cave to the group. The "Tyrone" chanters got what they really needed instead. First, "Window Seat," which unfolds the constant problem of wanting people to love you, but leave you the fuck alone, and "Soldier," which set up an empowering "yes-siree" sing-along that a sated crowd should walk out humming. That didn't happen.
Earlier in the night Badu asked her audience, "Y'all mad at me?" Doubtful that anger was behind the pleas for an arguably great moment, among many, in her back catalog. Still, as she was trying to deliver a few passionate, exhausted lines to end the night, the rumbles continued. Giving up, she began a garbled "one in a..." speech, gave her DJ a few seconds to cue it up, and then blasted herself offstage (and everyone out of American Airlines Arena) with Lil Wayne's defiant "A Milli." A strident closing statement, for sure, but miles from a groupthink surrender.