Exactly 20 years ago, on Feb. 11, 1997, singer Erykah Badu released Baduizm, an album the world didn’t know it needed. The R&B landscape at the time, full of pixie cuts and power ballads, emphasized polish, with divas like Whitney and Mariah, and R&B princesses like Brandy and Monica. In floats the ethereal Miss Erykah Badu, née Erykah Abi Wright, with her debut album. She chose the stage name “Badu” as a nod to her favorite jazz-scat sound.
Nothing in the late-’90s R&B scene indicated that we were ready for a woman who could scat Five Percenter mathematics and sing about mother ships. But how could we? “Neo-soul” as a term didn’t exist before music executive Kedar Massenburg coined it in 1997. The singer herself has never adopted it, preferring her musical proclivities unlabeled.
But just a few weeks shy of her 26th birthday, Badu was ready for us. She took the stage with no available comparison, hair wrapped in a precariously tall tower of fabric, inviting us to pick from her “Appletree.” And she offered no apologies for being who she was. Her jazz-inflected vocal stylings drew musical comparisons to Lady Day. She never claimed to carry that mantle, either.
Badu’s sensibility was unmistakably hip-hop, but laced with a molasses drawl that let you know where in the country she was coming from. At 5 feet tall, this hummingbird from the South had something to say. Small wonder that she found a muse in her beau at the time, Atlanta rapper Andre 3000 (he played her love interest in the videos for “Otherside of the Game” and “Next Lifetime”). Although Badu’s sound has evolved throughout her tenure, her music remains deeply rooted in Southern funk and culture. She is just as likely to ad-lib “Oooh, child” as she is to airily sing about positive energy.
In terms of songwriting, the album proudly resists drive-thru interpretation. All these years later, I’m still not sure I completely understand what “On & On” is about, even though I love it. But part of the song’s charm is that when she stops singing and asks, “Damn, y’all feel that?” We do. We did.
Baduizm offers a bit of everything: mother wit and wisdom, black-girl-next-door romance, mysticism, frustration over a trifling man. Badu’s songwriting struck gold for me with her uncanny ability to combine the spiritual with the mundane. In “Next Lifetime,” she flits between longing for another man and hoping for their reincarnation as butterflies.
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The debut established Badu as equal parts playful and serious about life, traits that have remained part of the singer’s mystique over the past two decades. The album dealt with more than the ups and downs of love. It hinted at social issues and black response to them, a characteristic known as being “conscious,” that would help position neo-soul as political soundtrack. In “Drama” she questions, “With all the problems of the day/How can we go on?” At times her honeyed vibrato evokes peace; in other places, a revolution.
Could Baduizm go certified triple platinum in 2017, in the social media era of the #CarefreeBlackGirl and #HotepTwitter? The Erykah Badu we first met back in 1997, in some ways, might have struggled to stand out in the current mainstream of performative Afrocentrism. Black Twitter might have called her “hotep” and “canceled” her before the end of the album played. However, it’s impossible to say—Badu is really the progenitor of the modern Afrofuturist soul singer. Artists like Solange and Janelle Monáe thrive in their lane in part because a green-eyed black girl from Dallas set the standard.
Baduizm would go on to net the soul singer two of her eventual four Grammy Awards. Her debut was critically acclaimed, even though her sophomore album (Mama’s Gun, 2000) remains many fans’ popular favorite. Perhaps that distinction is due to the latter album’s cohesive backing by hip-hop and neo-soul collective the Soulquarians. Still, Baduizm strongly anchors the holy trinity of neo-soul albums: Brown Sugar by D’Angelo (1995), Urban Hang Suite by Maxwell (1996) and Baduizm (1997).
Sonically, those landmark albums set the tone for a cool decade’s worth of departures from the smoothly produced R&B that ruled the airwaves. Neo-soul helped shift popular black music from synthesized slow jams to live bands in coffee shops. The more “organic” the instrumentation, the better. The genre gave us a perpetual Love Jones soundtrack. Where R&B would veer sometimes laughably close to rap in the aughts, neo-soul stubbornly declared for spoken-word poetry.
Interestingly, the three pioneers recently broke yearslong hiatuses to again produce stair-step releases, with D’Angelo and the Vanguard’s Black Messiah (2014), Badu’s mixtape But You Caint Use My Phone (2015) and Maxwell’s long-awaited blackSUMMERS’night (2016).
In the pantheon of neo-soul artists, Baduizm firmly established Badu’s reign as first lady. And after 20 years in the game, what is Badu’s legacy? She continues to be both hip-hop and Southern, contributing to and borrowing from each of these traditions. She has turned her eclecticism into her brand—but she’s still cool enough to remake a Drake tune. Her last project, a mixtape, came in 2015 and drew sales rivaling a proper album.
As the first female neo-soul artist, Badu influenced her peers and the next generation of soul artists with her music and aesthetic. When you consider the caliber of singers who followed Badu’s breakout effort, the list is impressive: Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill in 1998, Jill Scott in 2000, India.Arie in 2001.
No one quite saw Badu coming in 1997. But all these years later, looking at her impressive body of work, I can’t imagine what black music would be like without her. Happy 20th birthday, Baduizm.