In order to qualify as "certified organic," each of these items must have been developed from land that has been pesticide-free for three years. Put another way, it takes three years for Mother Earth to rid itself of pollutants so that it can send forth natural nourishment. This three-year cycle roughly corresponds to the last time Erykah Badu threw her voodoo down. She, too, is ready to present her own brand of food for the ear.
Three's the magic number when Badu settles behind a microphone touring in support of her third album, Mama's Gun. The album was released late last year, three years after her last offering, Live, and Mama's Gun's catalog number (012 153 259-2) adds, numerologically, to 30. The artist turned 30 herself last month; and her son, Seven Sirius, is now 3 years old.
During Badu's layoff, soul music has been cleansing itself of a syndrome that developed from a toxic combination of commercialism, crassness and copying. ("Layoff" is a relative term for Badu, as in the interim she has recorded with, among others, Common, OutKast, Burning Spear and Rahzel, and won her third Grammy Award for the Roots' "You Got Me.") Projects by D'Angelo, Jill Scott, the Roots and Badu's tour mates, Musiq Soulchild and Talib Kweli, have signaled the beginning of an era where musicians once again play what had been surrendered to machines.
The biotic nature of the Mama's Gun tour is symbolized by Badu's newly bald pate. Known for her elaborate head wraps and a famous (though mostly unseen) thicket of dreadlocks, Badu has shorn her locks and will perform in Atlanta with her domepiece shining beneath the Fox Theater's bright lights. "I didn't give a lot of thought to it," Badu told the New York Times before a Valentine's Day performance. "It was just something that I knew I wanted to do right now. I wanted to do something brave, to just make room for new things."
Gun follows in this vein, with the thunder of Baduizm's electronic programming giving way to a bare, natural sound that is accentuated by congas, flutes and orchestral strings. The new album's opening track, "Penitentiary Philosophy," is both new and brave, a radical departure from most of Badu's previous work. It alternates between raucous, Parliament-inspired funk-rock and surreal passages; the gauzy way in which Badu recorded her explosive vocals accentuates these musical contradictions. Much like D'Angelo's "Playa," "Philosophy" is a masterpiece that will go unnoticed, yet signals Badu's willingness and ability to expand beyond her audience's expectations.
Further, Badu presents herself as more accommodating, more accessible than on previous projects. She admits the pull of base influences like wanting to look fly despite childbirth's changes ("Cleva"), and concedes that it would be nice to feel physically attractive once again ("Kiss Me On My Neck"). In her most personal song, "Green Eyes," Badu sings of insecurity and pain in a way that leaves her totally exposed. "My eyes are green/'Cause I eat a lot of vegetables/It don't have nothin'/To do with your new friend," she sings in a verse marked in the liner notes as "Denial." It is a marked turnaround for an artist who had established herself as a maternal didact willing to preach mystic teachings to her less knowledgeable "children."
The new material almost seems too intimate for Badu to title the project after a weapon that is meant to be used impersonally, at a distance. Badu explains that Gun is a metaphor for the armor she feels today's children need to safely navigate a brave new world.
"I've become a mama," she told the Times, "and I figure my son is going to need some protection when he goes out in the world. And there's no better protection than your mama's words. That album is the gun: Use those words, those feelings, to solve the problems."
So for all the changes, Badu remains ready, willing and able to deliver food for thought. This time, she does it by delivering her music whole and unadorned. It is a recipe that will delight more sensitive palettes, and cause others to seek the "new and improved" taste of going natural.
Erykah Badu performs with Musiq Soulchild and Talib Kweli, Thurs., March 1 (sold out), and Tues., March 27, at the Fox Theater. Show time is 8 p.m. Tickets are $45 and $40. For information, call 404-249-6400.
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