On a quiet side street in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood — a few short blocks from the Barclays Center, and right above a natural-hair salon — is the low-rise red-brick building where Erykah Badu has lived on and off since the mid-Nineties. Walk up to the second floor and follow the vintage funk beats down a narrow carpeted corridor, and you'll find her place: a cozy two-bedroom artist's pad that radiates warmth and soul. "You can sit over there," says the singer, gesturing at a futon in one corner of her living room after her younger sister and assistant lets me in. "I don't have a lot of chairs."
For nearly 20 years, Badu has been one of R&B's boldest innovators — a hippie dreamer, Earth goddess, Afrofuturist seer, proud mama and occasional pop star. Her whole history is here in this room, where a king mattress occupies much of the floor, next to an orange Fender electric guitar, a waist-high ankh sculpture and an ancient-looking four-track recording console. Colorful fabric hangings, psychedelic album art, painted portraits of Badu and dorm-style posters of Bruce Lee and a toking Bob Marley decorate every inch of the walls. "André 3000 drew this," she says, pointing to an Afroed angel sketched directly onto one wall in pink and blue pastels, next to the word "Seven" — the name of her 18-year-old son with the Outkast musician, whom she dated in the late Nineties. "All of my babies have toddled through here over the years. I try to keep it dusted." She shrugs. "Sometimes I can't."
Sitting cross-legged on a purple-and-gold floor pillow, her famous olive-green eyes glittering from beneath the brim of a gray felt fedora, Badu appears completely at home. In fact, her primary residence is in her native Dallas, where the 44-year-old singer lives with Seven and her two daughters, 11-year-old Puma (whose father is gangsta-rap pioneer the D.O.C.) and six-year-old Mars (whose father is mystical-minded Jay Z protégé Jay Electronica). This place, she explains, is where she comes when she needs to unplug. "I don't go outside at all when I'm here," she says between bites of kale salad. "Party of one. I stay in with the shades down; I don't want to know what time it is. I just want to be naked and create. It's a recalibrator machine."
By any measure, Badu is in the middle of a creative hot streak right now. The night before we meet, she played a sold-out show at Brooklyn's opulent Kings Theatre to celebrate the Thanksgiving-weekend release of But You Caint Use My Phone, her delightfully clever new 11-track mixtape themed around love in the smartphone age. The day before the show, she was back in Dallas, assisting in a woman's home birth as part of her second life as a certified doula. "I didn't sleep at all," she says happily.
In addition to touring eight months out of the year, Badu is constantly making music; she estimates she has hundreds of unreleased songs, many of them recorded since her last proper studio LP in 2010. But lately, she says, she's found it challenging to assemble an album that she's comfortable sharing with the world. "You start to think that you're not creative anymore, because you have a deadline and you can't think of anything. But you can't force it. It's like a baby: Only when it's fully developed can it come."
But You Caint Use My Phone was her way of sidestepping that block. It started when she was driving Seven to school in Dallas one morning, listening to new music on SoundCloud. "The music that's in fashion isn't necessarily what's appealing to me," she says. "As much as I admire the voice of my son's generation, I don't embody it." But something about Drake's "Hotline Bling" connected with her, and she decided to cover it with help from a 23-year-old local producer named Zach Witness, stretching the song out to a spacey seven minutes and adding a new chorus melody suggested by Seven. Within days, she had posted the song online with a brief, tantalizing message for her patient fans, promising an upcoming mixtape called But You Caint Use My Phone.
No such mixtape existed at that point, nor was there any clear plan for one. "But I knew it was going to be ill," Badu says with a knowing smile. "We had this frequency vibrating around us." Writing things down to conjure them into existence is a practice she's kept ever since penciling the thought "I am an artist, I will do good in the world" onto a pink sheet of paper as a 10-year-old in Dallas. "Spelling is a spell," she says. "Everything we write down happens."
The name of the then-imaginary mixtape came from a lyric in 1997's "Tyrone," her signature fed-up anthem, which Badu remembers as an early lesson in the power of serendipity. "I freestyled that song," she says with a laugh. "We were just joking around. I wrote all these other songs that took so much time and effort, thinking, 'John Lennon will be proud of this one.' And then here's 'Tyrone,' this private joke between me and God — and that's the one I'm known for."
Badu's version of "Hotline Bling" quickly racked up plays on SoundCloud and YouTube. All that was left was actually making the mixtape, which she did in roughly 11 days, recording funked-up covers and originals at her home studio and at Witness' parents' place. "We were scrambling to make sure we kept our word," she says. "We had to be kind of quiet, because Zach's mom didn't want us to make too much noise." She recorded some of her vocals directly into the Voice Memos app on her iPhone, a departure from her usual methods, which involve yards of two-inch tape. "I always considered myself an analog girl," she says, "but I'm moving and floating and swimming so well in this digital world."
Drake is a good friend of Badu's — he memorably rapped about dropping by her house in Dallas for tea and romantic advice on 2014's "Days in the East" — but he does not appear on But You Caint Use My Phone. Instead, she recruited an unknown Atlanta rapper named Aubrey Davis, whose flow closely resembles Drake with a nasty head cold, to rap on two songs. Many listeners were tricked into confusing the two MCs. "Drake thought it was funny," Badu says. "He texted me: 'You'd better stop letting these young cats come over and take up my tea time!'"
One of the last songs to come together was "Hello," a tender duet with her ex André 3000 — their first on-record collaboration since Outkast's 2000 album cut "Humble Mumble," which was released shortly after the end of their romantic involvement. The two artists' long-past relationship has taken on mythic qualities for many fans; hearing their voices in harmony again feels right in the way it might have if Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash had made a new love song 20 years after "Our House." Badu says the musical reunion was only natural now that André lives in Dallas, where he moved some time ago to be closer to their son and her. "We're together all the time, at least three days a week," she says. "I'm a really big fan of his, always been. I'm always anxious to impress him."
André began his contributions to the track while she was out of town, laying down a characteristically adept rap verse about sex and commitment ("Don't need shit on the side no more, all entree, fuck a salad") over an instrumental she'd made with Witness interpolating the Isley Brothers' version of Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me." "He sent me the verse, and it was magic," Badu says. "I thought that was going to be it." A week or two later, André suggested that they try singing the Isleys tune together themselves to close out the song. "We were in my living room, and André was like, 'Are we going to finish this?' I said, 'What do you mean? I can't go after that!' But we decided to go further with it. We stayed up until five in the morning."
Even in the long years when they weren't directly collaborating, Badu and André have maintained an ongoing musical dialogue of sorts. "After he did The Love Below, I felt like, 'Well, shit! There's nothing else for me to do. He did everything,'" she says of his 2003 LP with Outkast. "At the same time, he's not in a race to do anything — that's something we have in common. I don't feel like there's a certain time when you're supposed to put something out. The cards are definitely in my favor and in our favor right now, and I don't take it for granted. It doesn't have to be that way."
Badu remains similarly close with the exes who fathered her other two kids. "If it's real, it's real," she says. "And those friendships are very real. They were all mini-marriages of sorts — the only difference is I didn't go to Vegas to get married." She says she still dreams of settling down for good with someone, someday: "I'd love to. That would be my next project. The goal is always forever, isn't it?"
In other ways, she's a deeply rooted nonconformist. Like many hip-hop and R&B artists who came of age in the Eighties and Nineties, Badu is fond of the teachings of Clarence 13X, the late leader of the esoteric Nation of Islam offshoot known as the Five-Percent Nation. "Eighty-five percent of the people are deaf, dumb and blind," she says, reciting the group's foundational theory of society. "Ten percent of the people profit off their ignorance, and five percent of the people are watching from an observation deck."
At her show in Brooklyn the previous night, she shared some wisdom of her own from the stage — "Freedom is coming, for the slaves and the slave masters ... evolution happens with or without your permission" — and asked the audience to hold their hands up, palms facing outward, for a moment of communal energy. "Could you feel it? Isn't it awesome?" she asks me. "I could start a cult if I wanted to. But I'd rather remind people that they are who they are, and their thoughts are their thoughts."
Outside of music, Badu answers her spiritual calling through her work as a doula assisting pregnant friends and acquaintances — she says she's helped with around 20 births since 2001, and she's working toward becoming a fully certified midwife. "I love service," she says. "Why not be the welcoming committee? I just want the babies to come in feeling love and peace here, because it's possible." She also volunteers at hospices to help comfort terminal patients. "I'll bring tuning forks and singing bowls and play piano and sing, or sit there and talk to them," she says. "And I like to play comedy records, because that calms too — Richard Pryor, The Carol Burnett Show, Road Runner and Coyote, Dick Gregory."
She's somehow found time to work on yet another longtime dream as well: Badu recently staged an eccentric, largely improvised one-woman show called "Live Nudity" in Dallas, and she hopes to bring it on the road soon. "I should have done that a long time ago," she says. "It came so easy."
Badu looks around her at the art-filled room and thinks back to when she first moved in, shortly after arriving in New York during the Blizzard of 1996 in search of a record deal. "It doesn't seem like 20 years," she says. "I can't believe I remember everything. I thought I probably smoked it all away!"
Before I leave, I ask Badu if she feels like she's ready to end her now-six-year break between proper studio albums. "Oh, yeah," she says, right away. "This is just an intermission. I feel reborn."