Interview: Erykah Badu

An R&B iconoclast turns her gaze inward on a personal new disc.

Legend has it that if you look Erykah Badu in the eye for too long, you’ll start wearing crocheted pants. The myth—inspired by a 2003 Essence photo shoot Badu styled for then-boyfriend Common, as well as by certain aesthetic and musical choices Andre 3000 has made since forming a relationship with the singer—isn’t one she’s cared to deflate. But listeners might be surprised to hear her toy with her own image on “Fall in Love (Your Funeral),” from her forthcoming album New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh). Co-opting a memorable lyric from the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Warning”—“It’s gonna be a lot of slow singing and flower bringing, if my burglar alarm starts ringing”—Badu turns Biggie’s threat into a plea for a would-be suitor to keep his distance.

“It’s an urban legend, I can’t explain,” Badu says of her reputation for spreading a hippie vibe during an interview at NBC’s Studio 6B, where she’s biding time before a Late Night with Jimmy Fallon performance. “You gotta let it just be.” A top-hat-clad Badu is lighting a stick of incense when I enter the dressing room where she’s holed up. Offering to share the veggie bacon she’s brought in a Tupperware container from home—she lives in Dallas, but keeps an apartment in Fort Greene—she stops to ponder the room’s fish-themed wallpaper. “I guess they knew the Pisces was coming,” she quips.

Talk turns to “Window Seat,” the starkly simple, effortlessly comforting Return of the Ankh single she’s just rehearsed. Fallon makes for an appropriate launching pad for the song, which she’s performing publicly for the first time. Badu cowrote “Window Seat” with longtime collaborator James Poyser, a sometime member of the Roots who plays piano in the Late Night edition of the band. ?uestlove, another close Badu associate, provides the song’s insistent backbeat.

“A lot of the most heartfelt songs I’ve ever written are by James and I, just by me standing by the piano, leaning on it, and him coming up with chords to match what I’m humming or singing, or vice versa,” Badu says. “Me and James have a magic,” she later adds. “That’s my studio husband. There’s something about us together. He understands.”

Return of the Ankh utilizes the same core group of cowriters and producers (Madlib, Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra Creative Partners) as its epic predecessor, 2008’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). But while the two albums naturally share some sonic sensibilities, lyrically they are diametric opposites. “One is outside of me, one is inside of me,” Badu says. “What’s going on outside is the left brain: Part One. What’s going on inside is the right brain: Part Two.” Whereas the first installment, among the more eclectic albums to fall under the R&B banner in some time, looked outward with a political slant, Return is resolutely personal.

“I’m a complete human being.” Badu says. “I’m very emotional and loving: I feel, I hurt, I give, I take, and also I think. I analyze. I’m a sociologist, an anthropologist. Certain types of music sonically bring out a certain part of me. Most of the songs on Part Two are very emotion-driven—the chords, the vibration, the drums. That automatically triggers a part of me to start to sing and hum about that.”

In a sense, Badu’s new album parallels her landmark 1997 debut, Baduizm. Like that release, which established her as the leading voice of the neosoul movement, Return is typified by tales of complicated love (“Window Seat”; the three-part “Out My Mind, Just in Time”) and tongue-in-cheek humor. The Notorious B.I.G. turns up a second time on Return: “Turn Me Away (Get Munny)” riffs on Junior M.A.F.I.A.’s “Get Money.” Originally planned as a cover of Sylvia Striplin’s “You Can’t Turn Me Away”—the 1981 song sampled in “Get Money”—it morphed in the studio into a satirical anthem Badu delivers as a gold digger called Honey Bunny. “My music is also possessed—different characters come in sometimes,” she explains.

The late Christopher Wallace might not be the first MC you’d associate with Badu, but the singer, who was settling into Fort Greene when Biggie erupted out of nearby Clinton Hill in 1994, credits her former Brooklyn neighbor as a major inspiration. “He’s just one of those staples for me,” she says. “I remember where I was when I first heard Ready to Die.” There’s always been more than meets the eye in terms of Badu’s relationship to hip-hop: Only recently did it come to light that she was once a rapper herself, during her days at Grambling State University in the early ’90s. Hailed early in her career as presenting an alternative to gangster rap, she now has, in her own subtle way, given it new life.

New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) is out Tue 30.

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