In times like these, it’s good for your brand if you seem politically engaged and relatable to fans. “Casual” social media videos with friends are shot professionally, having a select number of “normal” friends that aren’t famous can be humanising, and of course having an opinion on the latest political flavour of the month makes you seem socially aware. Of course, one risks seeming superficial and cynical if such matters are not treated with the appropriate level of rigour.
There are a few culprits of such superficiality that spring to mind here, but Erykah Badu has never been one of them. She hasn’t had to pretend to be something she’s not to sell more records because she is genuine. She’s one of the few artists whose onstage persona seems to closely mirror her off-stage persona. Growing up in a hippy family in Dallas and being brought up on Chaka Khan, her roots lie in soul music. However, at school she joined a rap duo called the Def Ones, where she developed hip hop cadence that can often be heard in her music today.
Badu has said in previous interviews that she’s “a performance artist first and a recording artist second” and tonight’s show at Hammersmith Apollo was her first in London since 2012, so it was little surprise that it was so highly anticipated. The evening was a celebration to mark her genre-defying debut album Baduizm turning 20.
The diverse audience and mix of ages shows how well Badu’s music has stood the test of time. On a sold out, boiling hot summer evening at the Apollo, the atmosphere was electric, with the speakers pumping out bangers by Whitney Houston, Anthony Hamilton and DJ Khaled.
It was not long before that distinctive bass line that begins Baduizm crept in. After about 64 bars of “Rimshot” minus Badu, the singer slowly strolls onto the stage and as she does, the music stops. Her footsteps are amplified and she’s wearing a resplendent coat, which first looks like an American flag, but on closer inspection is revealed to be a mix of that flag and several different African flags, including those of South Africa and Ghana.
She began the show with a jazzy number, “Out Of My Mind, Just In Time”. “I'm a recovering undercover over-lover. Recovering from a love I can't get over,” she croons, sounding reminiscent of both Amy Winehouse and Etta James over a solemn piano.
Fans who had tuned into Badu at a later stage of her career were also left pleased, with the singer playing some tracks of her most recent mixtape, But You Caint Use My Phone. The snare-infused “U Don’t Have To Call” couldn’t have sounded more different to some of the more mellow material off Baduizm, but it that was no bad thing – it just further confirmed the versatility of Badu as an artist.
The band complemented Badu’s change of rhythm and tone well, with some songs requiring two drummers and a bassist whose playing recalled the conviction and funk of Bootsy Collins. Many of Badu’s early tracks sounded more animated live, with bouncier versions of “Apple Tree” and an extended version of “Time’s A Wastin’” being some of the best performances of the evening, showcasing her impeccable vocal range. An energetic rendition of “Danger” off her experimental third album Worldwide Underground was received well by the crowd, with Badu asking the crowd if they felt the heat from the performance.
Erykah Badu’s last song of the evening, "Soldier", which was more rooted in acapella and soul-inflected percussion on this occasion than on the album and even at times strayed into stripped down gospel music, involved a lot of audience participation. After she finished the second verse, Badu started conversing with the crowd about the documentary on which the song is based, asking them to imagine themselves as the indigenous Mexican Chiapas that were kettled on their own land by the Mexican army and imagine herself as a Mexican soldier, threatening to shoot them.
As demonstrated by songs like “Soldier” that were ingenious as well as moving, Badu doesn’t have to pretend to be someone she’s not to be the centre of the zeitgeist. Such relevance comes totally naturally to her.