Erykah Badu’s debut album was a culturally sentimental work that explored the fusion of Jazz, Blues, R&B, Gospel and Funk elements so in depth that it blatantly threw the industry’s limitations of R&B/Soul a curve ball. At the time, a few artists were on the brink of pioneering the Neo-soul subgenre, but they each maintained radio-friendly tinges of baby-making slow jams and break up ballads. Baduizm was astrally spiritual, however, with its live instrumentation and lyrically imparted consciousness. And with a team of forward-thinking, musical craftsman on board with her vision, Badu essentially altered music’s landscape forever. The 1997 LP was mostly produced by The Roots and newcomer at the time, Madakwa Chinwah, with instrumental contributions from Ron Carter, Bobby Bradford and more. Though this was Erykah’s first studio album, the melodically ferocious courage demonstrated by the singer on each track was evidence enough to declare her artistry necessary and irreplaceable. It was also clear that the Dallas native knew of her virtuosic peculiarity but intentionally vowed to persist anyway.
Erykah Badu was the Black bohemian archetype sporting high head wraps and ancient Kemetic symbolism-themed jewelry. But more than her appearance could divulge, the songstress’ otherworldly voice was the true revelation of her unearthly wealth. A nasally tonality so organically rich and pure presented itself as the newborn lovechild of Jazz and Blues music. But the former B-girl’s southern twang, poetic prose and Hip-Hop culture references were a persuasive testament to the genuine originality of this sound. One that only Badu could birth.
Baduizm bleeds philosophy and wisdom by way of the storyteller’s (Badu’s) spirituality and womanhood. The Texas native’s assertive self-assuredness in “Certainly” boldly violated the “lovestruck damsel” narrative of the late ’90s with a straightforward grace. But the song’s original message is rumored to have been rooted in the theme of the stolen identities of Africans who had an alternate sense of self imposed on them after being sold into slavery. The massive presence of an upright bass almost instantly transports you to a ‘50s nightclub where the resident chanteuse’s earthy and funky vocals coo, “I was not looking for no love affair/ And now you wanna fix me/ I was not looking for no love affair/ And now you want to mold me/ Was not looking for no love affair/ Now you wanna kiss me/ Was not looking for no love affair/ And now you wanna control me.”
Another component of Baduizm that resonated with early supporters was Erykah’s conspicuous humanness. She maintained a serious consciousness on “Drama” but flexed her satirically witty personality on “Afro (Freestyle Skit),” proudly showing that Black women were not only spiritual and artistic, but intelligent and comedic. A lady beatnik as heard on “Sometimes (Mix #9),” Erykah Badu could also and very easily give any vocalist a run for their money as the soothing harmonies on “4 Leaf Clover” showcased. Her flexibility further surfaced as her live instrument enthusiast side on “Rim Shot” gave way to her self-love savant side on “Apple Tree.” Clever metaphors garnish the singer’s unbothered undertone as she shares some valuable “food for thought” and unapologetically admits to being selective with who shares her space. “See I picks my friends like I pick my fruit/ My Granny told me that when I was only a youth/ I don’t walk around trying to be what I’m not/ I don’t waste my time trying to get what ya got/ I work at pleasing me cause I can’t please you/ And that’s why I do what I do/ My soul flies free like a willow tree/ Doo wee, doo wee, doo wee/ And if you don’t wanna be down with me/ You don’t want to pick from apple tree.”
There were three singles released from Baduizm that, though not as abstract as the album’s deep cuts, were still so avant-garde for radio. Regardless, they each earned their rightful spins and swept in a host of accolades for Erykah Badu. The relatable “Next Lifetime” highlighted the complexity of relationship interferences while the reality-based “Other Side of the Game” found Badu pleading with a lover to abandon his precarious, street occupation. Admittedly content with the life her man’s hustle affords her, the songbird mellifluously expresses her fears resulting from his involvement in the game. Baduizm’s lead single “On & On” was themed in the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths and boasted a slew of third-eye only messages on everything from racism to faith.
So, while most other artists exhibited preexisting images by safely placing their musical puzzle pieces where they were designed to fit, Badu reshaped her pieces and created a new picture that only she envisioned for herself. The jazzy swing of her voice over the Hip Hop beat on “No Love” bears witness to this fact as does every other item following Baduizm in Erykah’s catalogue.
This seminal body of work is conceptual, complex, charismatic, confident and sometimes confrontational which makes it one of very few albums that’s as much a part of Hip Hop history as it is R&B/Soul. Baduizm earned the Grammy Awards for Best R&B Album and Best Vocal Performance (“On & On”) as well as three Soul Train Awards, eight American Music Awards and two NAACP Awards. It peaked to #2 on the Billboard Top 200, #1 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums and was certified Triple Platinum in the U.S. (certified Gold in the U.K. and Canada). And in all its ground-breaking glory, Erykah Badu’s debut album was just the foundation for a career that continued to blossom musically as well as branch out into fashion and film. Revisit the awe-inspiring sermon that dawned Badu the high priestess of Neo-soul in Baduizm below.
“Everything that I learned forever is there. ‘Izm’ in hip-hop culture is marijuana, and izm gets you high. So ‘Baduizm’ is supposed to be a natural high — my way of lifting everybody.” – Erykah Badu