Erykah Badu is a force who subtly commands the stage with her jazzy voice, enlightened song-writing and empathetic connection. This was a much-anticipated return from the “Queen of Neo Soul” as she played her first London gig in five years (thanks to the work of Neo Luv). The venue was sold out and sweltering in the summer heat but her fans gladly gave their devoted attention.
Badu has always been respected for her individuality and her stream of consciousness style of writing. Showcasing songs from a number of her albums, each was originally arranged with brand new interpretations. Having grown up on a rich diet of soul music, the Dallas born star started out making hip-hop music as a teenager. This fusion of soul and rap created her unique R&B sound, demonstrated through her rhythmically modulated vocals and bass dominance.
She entered the stage wearing a cloak made from a variety of African and American flags, symbolically flying her famous quote, “I have no political affiliation to anything besides my afro”. Entering slowly to the deep vibrating tones of the Rimshot bassline, she reaches centre stage to silence as the crowd roared in immediate appreciation. Welcoming with her bewitching ‘Hello, Hello’ she moved straight into the laid-back minimal ‘Out of My Mind. Just in Time’. Sentimentally singing “I’m a recovering undercover overlover” to the lone floating chords of the piano, this felt like a love song to her adoring fans.
Celebrating twenty years since her most celebrated LP Baduizm, she entertained the crowd with adaptations of her best-known songs ‘On and On’ and ‘Apple Tree’. Playing songs for her “babies from the seventies, eighties and nineties”, she also indulged the diverse audience with a range of tunes spanning her two decades of albums: Mama’s Gun, New Amerykah Part One and Two and Worldwide Underground.
She unveiled her feisty side during ‘Your Congratulations’ as she grinded up closely against the bass player after stripping off her outer layers still wearing her outrageously high white thigh boots. She then showed off her rare dexterity and articulate singing range as she screamed her feral high-pitched notes at top volume.
She closed the night with ‘Soldier’ from her 2008 album, revealing to the audience that the song was written after watching a documentary Fourth World War. This depicted a Mexican land stand-off between violently armed soldiers and a peaceful township. As the original dwellers chant together in protest, the camera zooms in on a single soldier with a tear rolling down his face; his sudden self-realisation of his own actions inspiring the song.
Unfortunately, poor sound control was an issue throughout the entire set with feedback and muddiness plaguing the night. Due to the lack of ventilation, Badu had to collect all the bottles of water on the stage and throw them onto the overheated crowd. The Apollo has unfortunately become out-of-date and struggled to keep up with the needs of such an iconic artist.
Badu is unafraid to be colloquial and unpolished and to free her inner voice. Her shrewd observation and devastating irony resonate with many for who she has become an influential role model. Being an African-American woman in a male dominated and sometimes misogynistic industry cannot be easy, but Badu will always refuse to conform to stereotypes. This rawness and integrity combined with sheer talent is what will always keep her fans coming back for more.
Photo ©: Ravi Chandarana