The first time I heard the song “Liberation” on the album Aquemini, I knew it was the best song I’d ever heard in my life. I was probably 14. It was vast, almost nine minutes long. It was profound — the idea that there was “a fine line between love and hate,” and it had something to do with freedom. It was collective, with verses from both Andre 3000 and Big Boi, Big Rube, Cee-Lo Green, and my personal favorite, a woman named Erykah Badu. “Folk in your face you’re a superstar,” she begins, in what I interpreted as a deeply personal verse about the emptiness in material success, a loneliness in being loved only for one’s perceived proxy to stardom, the heartbreak in wanting only to “give the world your art,” and that passion being twisted and exploited by the music industry machine.
My best friend and I soon added Erykah Badu to our rotation of CDs we played over and over driving around in her silver Honda Civic. Like Outkast, Badu made songs that were cool, playful, cartoonish, and smart. She sang about love and heartbreak but also about being “born underwater with three dollars and six dimes,” stuff that sounded both confident and cryptic. Badu’s untouchable cool, generous and sometimes inscrutable wisdom, self-assuredness and incomparable style were unlike any other artist I’d come across. “On and On,” the song where she sings about being born underwater (she’s a Pisces), is also the song where she sings, “if we were made in his image then call us by our names/most intellects do not believe in God but they fear us just the same.” There was no Lyric Genius website in the early ‘00s, so I couldn’t look up and see what she meant. But I assumed the “we” could’ve been speaking from any of the intersections of her identity as a Black woman. It seemed like one of the smartest, coolest, most genuine and witty lyrics I could think of.
Probably one of the reasons Badu has been such a significant influence on my work is that I never exactly felt like she was making music for me. I didn’t think she’d mind if I was listening, but there was no sense of pandering to me, a person she didn’t know, who happened to be a white girl in the suburbs. It never mattered to her, it seemed, if I became a fan of her work or not. But I can imagine a feckless music industry executive in the ‘90s trying to make Badu seem “more marketable”; perhaps “less Black” and “less weird,” neither of which she’s ever seemed to compromise. Her commitment to singularity and social consciousness becomes even more apparent in 2008’s New Amerykah Pt 1: Fourth World War. A New York Times profile from its press cycle quotes a BET executive describing her as an artist who “doesn’t necessarily fit in,” that she “makes music as she wants to, and then it is up to the public to decide.”
The album is as musically exciting to me in 2022 as it was when I first heard it 14 years ago. If anything, I hear how much it has influenced pop culture both sonically and lyrically. In covering and reinterpreting Roy Ayers’ “American Promise” and Eddie Kendricks’ “My People Hold On,” we get a sense of where Badu is coming from musically (funk, soul, psychedelic rock) as much as topically. The track “Master Teacher” is commonly recognized as perhaps the first time “woke” was used in its now ubiquitous slang meaning. Working with a slew of underground producers who incorporated elements of jazz, funk, rock, and lo-fi J Dilla-indebted electronic beats, I hear a precursor to a wide range of today’s more fluid, genre-defying albums from pop stars like Kendrick Lamar and FKA Twigs.
This column is supposed to be about a specific sound in a specific track that influenced how I made some aspect of my own music on my new album Barbarism. I listen to a lot of music and don’t gravitate to any genre more than another. I simply look around and listen for music that I connect with. I often find genre labels tedious, though I recognize how much language and names can aid us in communicating about the creative work we love. I am influenced by so much, I often feel like a sponge soaking everything up. Everything I make is the result of what I’m seeing, hearing, feeling, learning. I know what comes out of me is hardly my own.
The songs on Barbarism called “Flag Wave Pt. 1” and “Flag Wave Pt. 2” were written together as one long track. I imagined them as a little movie in an alternate but similar reality, where an entertainer is getting on stage to sing a patriotic anthem for soldiers who have just returned from war (Pt. 1) and then getting off stage and privately in her dressing room, singing a song only to herself that defies that same patriotism she’d sung on stage prior (Pt. 2). The song felt bizarre to me, and the only reference point I could discern from my messy internal catalog of musical reference points was Badu’s reinterpretation of “American Promise,” where she pitches her voice up and down to play both an airline pilot narrator and a little girl at the end of the flight looking for a lost “42 laws.” The song feels cinematically exciting, fun and playful as much as it is serious, and rooted in a musical past as much as it is pointing to a future.
I made the record mostly in pandemic isolation, but the truth is that even if COVID never existed, I may have ended up doing the same thing. I was in a new and uncertain chapter of my life; I’d moved across the country and was trying to understand who I was outside of the band I’d been songwriting with for almost a decade. I decided early on in the process, likely aided by the nature of our alienating reality, that I would not attempt to write for any specific audience beyond myself. I wanted to look inwards and hear what was happening in my own head, regardless of its chaos or strangeness, regardless of any discomfort I might feel in the thought of anyone else hearing and disliking it. Meeting that challenge head on now that I’m sharing this album with anyone else has not been easy. To quote Morrissey from back when he was a little more relatable, “I’m human and I need to be loved just like anybody else does.” But in turn, I’m human and I need to be me. I am forever grateful to, and admiring, of the ways Erykah Badu’s work shows me her full self, and in turn, a roadmap to finding my own.