[A–    JMS]

Erykah Badu, a multi-Grammy award winning artist, performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn on a wintry Tuesday night. Her musical work is categorized as neo-soul, an offshoot of the contemporary R&B genre. She has recorded four critically acclaimed albums. From Baduizm, her first studio album released in 1997, to her recent 2008 album New America Part One (4th World War), Badu has adhered to a consistent, rich blend of 70s soul music incorporating elements of funk, jazz, and especially hip-hop into her craft. Erykah’s song lyrics deal with romantic relationships, socio-political themes, and situations regarding everyday life as a human being. Her song topics derive from a vast range of human emotions and experiences. Some music critics have suggestively compared her voice and delivery to that of the legendary jazz songstress Billie Holiday, drawing similarities between both artists’ unique manipulation of tempo and delicate, suave vocals. Her performance consisted of a medley of seven songs selected from her recorded material.

Badu’s performance was less of a concert and more of a listening session. I did not have to deal with the hassle of being cluttered in the midst of a multitude of raving number fans nor of the distortion of overly amplified projection of sound. Each member of the audience had his or her own seat placed in rows parallel to the stage. The height of the stage was probably shoulder length, or even lower, to the ground when seated. The audience’s age description ranged from young adult to middle age. Casual attire suited the relaxed and “grown-up” nature of the event. A mixture of African American and Hispanic, though predominant, and Caucasian public comprised the audience that night. The audience members were obviously fans of Badu’s music. The majority of those in attendance, me included, were either mouthing off to the song lyrics so adroitly and forcibly uttered by Badu or involuntarily bobbing their heads to the heavily syncopated baseline.

Badu positioned herself front and center of the stage accompanied and assisted by a surrounding semicircle of musicians, instruments, and back-up vocalists. Peculiarly interesting were the black color clothes worn by all of the musicians and back-up singers. They were not uniformly black. Their clothes were quite ordinary with regular designs and brand names so I’m not sure if it was a coincidence or a sheepishly enforced mandatory protocol. Be that as it may, most of the visual attention went to the exaggeratedly oversized Afro Erykah wore on her head. The main attraction herself did not wear clothes from a gaudy wardrobe. Her pedestrian apparel included an innumerable assortment of bracelets on one of her forearms, rings on her fingers, a crimson T-shirt blurting out ”I can’t be overdrawn. I have still have some checks” and indigo tinted jeans with sneakers. I felt comfortable not having to worry about wearing a bowtie, slacks, and dress shoes. The stage was sufficiently illuminated by the lights while a mild darkness covered the audience. Our focus was upon who and what were on stage.

The song entitled “Honey,” the first single off her recent aforementioned album, was the first highlight of the performance. In the song, “honey” refers to a man she has fallen in love with. It’s an extended metaphor of a love interest that has captivated one’s attention with his or her “sweetness.” She further characterizes her desired lover as a bumblebee always fleeing from her incessant, harmless, self-interested persecutions. However, by the blithe, lighthearted melody it gives the impression that the she is not negatively affected by rejection. The carefree mood is underscored by the flute’s “whistling” riff, and the tempo of the song kept in check by the percussionists’ moderately quick-paced, lively beat. The song is an unconventional ode where attractiveness overshadows the demoralizing feeling of unreciprocated love.

Erykah had complete command over her band. Midway through her “Honey” performance, while singing she effortlessly ordered her band to slow the tempo down. The “adagio” tempo enabled her to fully convey her sentiment through her melodic voice. She played not only the role of lead singer but also of a conductor. At times, she had the band pause for a brief and sudden moment and would then sing a specific phrase that she deemed important for the audience to listen without instruments followed by the band resume playing. These changes to tempo and sound level serve to accentuate and heighten one’s musical experience. Badu exercised both artistic and administrative qualities in her performance.

“Soldier” was the next song to be performed in sequence. But before Badu proceeded, she nonchalantly addressed the audience and confessed her passion for recording songs and performing live. According to her, recording a song is “perfecting a moment” and performing live is “creating a moment.” Such an honest remark gave the whole performance a personal and introspective feel. And before continuing on with the show, she shared with us how fulfilling and therapeutic singing was to her. Who knew that musical performances could be conversational?

The next song “Soldier” has a darker, contemplative narrative in contrast to the romantic, comedic “Honey.” The monotonous overbearing beating of the bass drum synchronized with the keyboardist playing in the minor key evokes a grave and almost ominous undertone. The repetitive thudding of the bass drum gave me the impression of a heart pumping blood in a continual state of apprehension. Moreover, the back-up vocalists soulful and somber “Yesiree”’s in consonant harmony to Badu’s singing exuded a regimented quasi-military effect. The song’s lyrics perplexed me because the song dealt with various issues: murder tolls of young people in ghettos, the lavish living of the wealthy, and crooked police officers. Nevertheless, my confusion only slightly detracted my appreciation for Badu’s artistry.

Throughout the performance she remained standing with the microphone positioned at her mouth level. She did not have an elaborate dance routine. Flaring fireworks and flashing lights were not implemented in the show. She did not rely on visual stimuli to engage the crowd. The combination of her music and her voice in itself was effectively sufficient. With the slightest movements of her body she, as well as those on stage with her, would move alongside the groove of the beat. One could have been blind and still experienced first-rate the performance.

I would sometimes get chills, that tingling sensation crawling throughout my body, when Badu would demonstrate her full vocal set while singing.
I was thoroughly satisfied with the high quality of professionalism and musical integrity Badu possessed. Throughout her career as a recording artist she never compromised her creativity for mass appeal. Her music is a hundred percent representation of her own distinct value and effort. She embodies the meaning of a true artist. In my opinion a live performance is the pinnacle of a musical experience. Being “in the moment” cannot be reproduced in vinyl, CD, nor MP3 format. Witnessing music in real time has remarkably altered my outlook on capturing time in its essence.