Erykah Badu's Naked Ambition

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(The Root) — For the second time since 2010, singer Erykah Badu's naked body is going viral. Sort of.


On June 1 a shocking video (i.e., NSFW) for Badu's atmospheric cover of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" hit the Web. Performed with experimental rock band the Flaming Lips, the psychedelic track stems from this spring's Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends album.

Directed by Delo Creative, the clip opens in slo-mo: Badu blinking her green eyes, band members strumming bass and barely emoting nonchalance. Badu sings the lines — made famous by Roberta Flack in 1972 — with added echo effects couched in a haunting, ethereal bed of sound. The camera pulls back, showing Badu curled up naked (but not revealed) in an isolated bathtub. Then things take an eccentric turn.

She emerges from the bathtub covered in golden glitter, full breasts on view. Her next time on camera, she spanks her own glittery backside. And in her next few frames, intercut with the Flaming Lips, she dips a hand into the sparkles and slaps them between her legs. Her vulva drips golden glitter. Badu continues, whipping her braids out of the gold in slow motion, pouring sparkles over her head.

Another verse begins with Badu back in the bathtub as before. At this point, surprised viewers might detect that her extensions have disappeared — that, in fact, she never wore any at the beginning of the clip, and the braided woman may not be Badu at all. She isn't. The body double is Koryan Wright, Badu's younger sister, who sings under the mirrored alias Nayrok Udab. (The sisters posed together for a Gap ad in 2001.)

For those familiar, the naked intro could reference the rebirth scene of Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970 Western, El Topo. Why? Badu mentioned Jodorowsky just four months ago in a public explanation for photos in which the Arabic word for "Allah" was temporarily tattooed on her upper body. (In February Muslims banned Badu from performing in Malaysia because of the pictures.) The photograph was a reinterpretation of an image from Jodorowsky's 1973 surrealist classic, Holy Mountain.

In the director's El Topo, when the titular gunfighter gets reborn into the next phase of his life, his hair turns from black to gold. Maybe Badu evokes that. (Regarding birth and rebirth, the singer is also an active assistant midwife, and many home births happen in bathtubs.)


Nudity quickly returns in the video, with Wright standing in the tub covered in red liquid the color of director Stanley Kubrick's gushing bloodbath in The Shining. She smacks her bloody rear again and gives the camera a full-frontal view of her shaven privates. Wright, with a strong resemblance to her older sister, erotically rubs herself all over — face, lips, chest. Symbolically, the blood is almost certainly menstrual if the bathtub serves as a sort of surrogate womb. Birth is a messy business.

Following more shots of Badu and the Flaming Lips, the clip ends with Wright smearing herself in a white liquid. The gooey fluid looks like cake icing, but given the sexiness of the video, semen jumps to mind right away. Wright smiles and licks the runny drips in full close-up, flaunting her nipples and genitalia. And the song ends.


What's it all mean? First-time sex? Birth? As is so often the case with clips like this, it could signify anything you want it to. Recall the hypothesizing behind director Romain Gavras' "Born Free" video for British singer M.I.A. two years back. The clip culminated in the violent genocide of redheaded citizens, rounded up military-state style, and was roundly criticized in some circles for its heavy-handed treatment. Music videos are never a respected forum for artistic statements that resonate deeply.

In 2010's "Window Seat" clip, Badu stripped on camera, walking through her hometown Dallas near the intersection where President John F. Kennedy was killed in 1963, and was faux assassinated as her voice-over droned on about groupthink. The concept was wholly unrelated to the song, but "Window Seat" was still clever. With its eclectic abstractions, Badu's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" isn't likely to find as much support.


The song itself, more than 10 minutes in its album version, is quite beautiful, with an ambient soundscape that recalls the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. But the video feels like another stab at the notoriety of "Window Seat," as well as pandering to fans weaned on the histrionics of M.I.A., Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj.

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" isn't edgy once you figure out that it's Wright, not Badu, doing the heavy lifting. The Flaming Lips have done nakedness before, in NSFW videos for this year's "Girl, You're So Weird" and 2009's "Watching the Planets." But at the end of the latter video, full of stark-naked bicyclists, lead singer Wayne Coyne doesn't fake it — he actually strips.


Miles Marshall Lewis is an author who blogs at Follow him on Twitter.