photo: Badu.World Archives
Erykah Badu is a cultural institution. Sound art, fashion/style, branding/commerce, intergenerational influence, her presence and contributions loom large in the zeitgeist. As an artist and entrepreneur, she remains as relevant as ever. A quarter-century into an illustrious career, for summer 2023 Erykah Badu leveled up yet again, embarking on a 25-date arena excursion dubbed the Unfollow Me tour with Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def of Black Star) providing support.
These days, several years removed from her last official music release, Erykah Badu is nothing if not a busy lady. Netflix recently confirmed Badu will appear in its film adaptation of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. On International Women’s Day (March 8th), Erykah officially launched her cannabis line called That Badu, in collaboration with rapper Berner and his Cookies brand. The strain is a terpene-rich Lemoncello crossed with Jet Fuel Gelato. In addition to her canna-product line Apple Tree, Badu and Berner are also releasing a mushroom tea.
On the music tip, beloved L.A.-based producer Madlib recently teased a forthcoming collaborative project with Badu. Meantime, the singer and her phenomenal band are in the middle of a magnificent run of shows that find the vocalist reborn, reimagining her catalog with a newfound verve and purpose.
Among the first handful of dates, Unfollow Me descended on the East Bay for a June 21st soiree at the often-vacant Oakland Arena, a vestige of a lost era where the NBA’s Golden State Warriors called home before they relocated over the Bay Bridge just a few years ago.
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This concert would provide a veritable masterclass in hip-hop and neo-soul, getting off to an exceptional start with a short, potent set from yasiin bey. Just after 8 p.m., the 49-year-old Brooklyn-born emcee/vocalist unassumingly took the stage with a minimalist setup, performing in front of his DJ with a backdrop of only shadows. Bey delivered a strong 45-minute set, breaking into deep cuts songs like “Auditorium” and “Casa Bey” from The Ecstatic, Black on Both Sides banger “Mathematics”, and the holler-anthem “Ms. Fat Booty”. Toward the end of the set, Bey dropped into his most famous tune, “UMI Says”, detouring from the original’s soothing Gil Scott Heron vibes into a frenetic tech-house banger while still crooning the lyrics atop the buoyant bounce.
Erykah Badu has reigned supreme as the “First Lady of Neo-Soul”, anointed for her mystique, energy, personality, and peerless steez. Along with D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Lauryn Hill, Badu was one of the major R&B vocalists ushering in the neo-soul wave of the late ’90s and into the next century. In fact, the subgenre’s moniker was originally coined by then-manager Kedar Massenberg to market Erykah’s debut LP, 1997’s Baduizm. She’s long delivered an organic amalgam of classic soul, intelligent hip-hop, and jazz chanteuse in her cauldron of ethereal original music, often oscillating between alter-egos like Badulla Oblongata, She Ill, Manuela Maria Mexico, Sarah Bellum, Analogue Girl in a Digital World, and LoDown Loretta Brown.
Badu’s vocal stylings have occasionally nodded toward Billie Holiday, but her attitude and energy lean into Black pride and power, plus psychedelic Afro-futurism of the P-Funk ’70s. The sum of these parts remains unlike anything we’d seen or experienced, however, the seeds of her sorcery have sprouted in the sounds and songs of SZA, Ari Lennox, and Janelle Monae. Over 25 years since Baduizm shook up the game, Erykah continues to be a major inspirational force of nature.
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Sometimes between the unicorn fashion profile, successful entrepreneurship, select DJ gigs, random fits of rhyming, hosting concerts that feel like a shamanic seance, and delivering babies as a certified doula, her sensational singing prowess almost gets lost in translation. On this night in Oakland, however, her vibrant vocal chops were the main event and superstar of the show from beginning to end without question. No matter the song or the moment, when Erykah really reared back and let it fly, her siren stunned the room.
After her band kicked things off with a thunderous, Badu-less version of the throbbing “The Healer”, the woman whose name was on the marquee slowly yet demonstratively appeared. Freshly dripping in a series of exotic, hysterical, and stunning looks courtesy of 19-year-old Dallas-based stylist Myah Hasbany, Erykah took an unrelenting command of the stage—and the entire arena—for 100 exhilarating minutes. She began with a patient, brooding unveiling of “20 Feet Tall” that brought the audience to its feet with her positively royal entrance.
The evening exploded into one giant singalong with a high-spirited Badu leading her troupe like a church choir, using the “Top Billin’” drum break to drop into her classic “On & On”, which spiraled into the defiant “… & On”, and before long, all of Oakland Arena had blasted off into the night.
Badu’s live bands have always been solid, but the current contingent might be the best one yet. The Musical Director is longtime bassist and collaborator Braylon Lacy, whose leadership goes a long way with arrangements and execution. On drums, Frank Moka has leveled up the situation, and in Oakland he would really impress—in tandem with Lacy’s rock-solid anchor—to drive the songs with nuance and authority. Daniel Jones handled synths and keyboards, with Geno “June Bug” Young wowing with a choice Fender Rhodes. As far as samples, drum programming, and DJ duties, the legendary producer Rashad “Ringo” Smith and the always trusty DJ A-1 were surgically on point.
Erykah Badu – Oakland Arena – 6/21/23 – Highlights
Badu’s backing vocalists have forever been a focal point of her sound and her live show, and this concert really allowed the “Baduists” some room to soar and shine. Durand Bernar, Lala Johnson, and Teron Austin brought celestial tones, versatility, depth, and an undeniable emotional quotient to the proceedings, giving Badu’s sarcastic ad-libs and quirky antics a bit of balance with the raw harmonic beauty.
The Grammy-winning empress served a smattering of searing songs from her extremely deep catalog, including “Appletree”, “No Love”, “Me”, “Time’s a Wastin”, “Kiss Me on My Neck”, “A.D. 2000”, and “Window Seat”, among other bangers. Badu reached back for Faith, Hope, & Charity‘s defiant “To Each His Own”, a song with a message in alignment with the ethos of the Unfollow Me tour.
Late in the set, Erykah acknowledged some classmates here in Oakland, friends from her time at Grambling State University, before taking a seat in a bean bag chair atop a drum riser. She grabbed an acoustic guitar to serenade the faithful with an absolutely stunning “Orange Moon”, then professed her adoration for Ari Lennox, borrowing a few stanzas from the singer’s hit “Whipped Cream”.
Erykah Badu – “Bag Lady”, “Tyrone” – 6/21/23
[Video: BEAUTY POLITICS TV]
Show highlights for this writer include a short, thrilling romp through “Love Of My Life (Ode to Hip-Hop)”, a nostalgic shot of glory that featured some hot bars from Badubatron in the space where Common’s rhymes fall. Maybe the concert’s apex, “Other Side of the Game” was stretched out into a magnum opus that had an entire basketball arena of Black women born in (at least) five different decades just sangin’ their hearts out, nothing short of a joy to behold. Badu continued the fantastic festivities with a treasured classic: another full-throated scream-along in “Bag Lady”, among the most revered cuts in her crucial catalog, where Erykah occasionally put the mic down and let the capacity crowd get their croon on without condition.
Erykah couldn’t resist pulling out Snoop Dogg’s X-rated train song “Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None)”, a hilarious riddle that Badu pulls on crowds time and time again, a raucous, raunchy track that had the entire place rappin’ along without nary a care in the world nor a f—k given. She acknowledged that she could not end her show that way, so Braylon Lacy, Frank Moka, the Baduists, and the rest of the crew dialed up a massive “Tyrone” to bring it on home, sending every last screaming soul fully satiated and sashaying into the night.
Setlist: Erykah Badu | Oakland Arena | Oakland, CA | 6/21/23
Set: The Healer , 20 Feet Tall, On & On, … & On, To Each His Own (Faith, Hope & Charity), Appletree, No Love, Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop), Me, Time’s a Wastin, Otherside of the Game, Kiss Me On My Neck, A.D. 2000, Orange Moon, Window Seat, Whipped Cream (Ari Lennox) , Next Lifetime, Bag Lady. Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None) (Snoop Dogg), Tyrone