The Soul and Science of Erykah Badu

R&B's hippie high priestess blasts off into outer space with New Amerykah Part Two,' her freakiest, funkiest album ever

erykah badu oakland 2010
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Erykah Badu performs at the Fox Theater in Oakland, California.
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When most musicians meet their fans, they get asked questions about songwriting or life on the road. But Erykah Badu's fans go straight for the astral plane. Backstage after a recent show in Oakland, the singer – wearing a black top hat, tailcoat and sequined genie pants – finishes breastfeeding her one-year-old daughter, Mars, and heads to a roomful of fans with the baby in her arms. A young black woman with long braids and a flowing skirt stands up and says, "I want to talk to you on a level of what's happening with the return of the goddess on a spiritual level." She struggles to articulate a question but ends up with: "As we return to this planet in a more greater way of forcing taking over, I wanna hear what your views are on matriarchy and how we embrace our brothers along the way." Badu pauses. "Urn, that's a tricky question," she says. "The pattern I see is the return of balance through femininity, through the mother, through the womb. The universe comes out of a wombiverse. What I see is woman's return to her throne, beside her king. I think it's a return to self-sufficiency. It's a return to ourselves, and that's how we lead."

For 13 years, Badu has explored the outer reaches of the musical wombiverse with increasingly ambitious, exploratory and eccentric records. Her latest, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, blends soul, hip-hop, R&B, jazz, blues and genre-defying Badu weirdness with even greater confidence and ease. (It's the sequel to her seriously funky 2008 disc, New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War.)

Along the way, she has earned 20 Grammy nominations, four wins and far-reaching influence on adventurous young artists of all stripes. "I love it when somebody takes the time to be fucked up," says Jim James of My Morning Jacket, who have made a live staple out of a bombastic, bluesy version of Badu's 1997 tune "Tyrone." "There's so much mystery and passion in her music. Her last album was one of those records like [Sly and the Family Stone's] There's a Riot Goin' On, where on first listen you're like, 'God, that kind of sounds like shit.' But the more you listen, the more you go, 'That's the most real thing I've heard in so long.'"

Badu grew up in Dallas and still lives there, 10 minutes from her mom, Queenie, and both of her grandmothers. Before you even get to the front door of her rustic waterfront split-level, you hear music. On one recent afternoon, the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" blasts from a speaker on a third-floor balcony. When Badu answers the door in a pink nightgown, her eyes are still sleepy slits. "I just got up, like, five minutes ago," says the singer, who was awake past 7 a.m. putting finishing touches on her record. Earthy incense hangs in the air, and the music – Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" comes next – is joined every half-hour by a computerized voice robotically announcing the time: "It's 4 p.m."

On one wall, above a copy of the Periodic Table of the Elements, a massive canvas silk-screened with a photo of Palestinian militant Leila Khaled hangs across from a picture of Harriet Tubman. A lamp in the shape of a gold AK-47 sits next to a photo of Badu's mother and a cardboard cutout of President Obama. Terra-cotta tiles inscribed with a poem from her 2000 album Mama's Gun run along a wall leading upstairs. Badu lives here with her 12-year-old son, Seven; and daughters Puma, 6, and Mars, born in the singer's bed just a year ago. (Puma was also born here; Seven – whose father is OutKast's André 3000 – was delivered at Badu's mother's house.)

She asks me to join her in the kitchen for some tea – a homeopathic cure-all she calls "a Badu brew" that includes dark maple syrup, echinacea, cayenne, myrrh and herbs from the yard. The kitchen, she explains, is the epicenter of most family activity. "It's a lab and a cafe," says Badu, a vegetarian since high school. "We do a lot of cooking, a lot of growing, a lot of cocoa-making, a lot of juicing."

Along with artists like the Roots, D'Angelo and Mos Def, Badu helped build a new soul groove around impeccable live musicianship – bass (often upright), drums and Rhodes keyboard. Her 1997 debut, Baduizm, hit Number Two and won her a Grammy for Best R&B Album. From the start, she refused to equivocate. "I went to the label with a 19-song album and said, 'This is my record,'" she says. "There was no iTunes then, but I was definitely not no 99-cent iTunes chick, from the beginning. I'm involved in every aspect of packaging, marketing; I write and direct all my videos; I do my own hair and makeup. My record label is called Control FreaQ. Records, because there's nothing freaky about controlling your image and your art."

Born Erica Abi Wright, the singer was raised in South Dallas by her mother, Kolleen Wright, and paternal grandmother. "I come from a long line of matriarchs," says Badu, whose father, William, was absent for most of her childhood and passed away in 2001. Queenie adds, "Her younger sister and brother were kind of chill, but Erykah was the child who'd fall down on the floor screaming to get her point across."

Badu started singing when she was four in a kids' arts program at a nearby rec center. As a teen, she studied dance and acting at Dallas' prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. But she began to come into her own artistic persona at age 19, when she changed the spelling of her name to "Erykah" as a way of discarding what she considered her "slave name." (She chose the spelling because it includes the Egyptian word kah, for "inner light." "Badu" came years later, inspired by the scat phrase "ba-doo," though she later learned it also means "to manifest light and truth" in Arabic.)

She studied theater and physics at Grambling State University but dropped out just before graduation. "I kind of got disenchanted because I knew what I wanted to do," she says. For a few years after college, she worked at the South Dallas Cultural Center teaching kids dance, theater, music, math and science. Her first showbiz experience was working at Steve Harvey's comedy house booking performers, manning the ticket booth and warming up the audience before Harvey went on. "They had to get a hook to pull me offstage," Badu says with a chuckle. "When I saw Steve and how he worked, I thought, 'I can do this.'"

Performing with her cousin, Robert "Free" Bradford, in a duo called Erykah Free, she caught the attention of manager Kedar Massenburg, who had recently signed D'Angelo, and he took Badu on as a client. "There was no Plan B in case it didn't work," Badu says. "My mama didn't want me to expect things not to work. I try to teach my kids the same thing – if you invite in negativity, then you gotta feed it and hang out with it. Best not to invite it in the first place."

Five albums into her career, Badu has settled into a comfortable rhythm. Her boyfriend – and Mars' dad — rapper Jay Electronica, has his own place nearby, so she has plenty of time for solitary contemplation. She maintains contact with all three of her children's dads and says she'd love to have more children. "What a beautiful little opportunity to love someone unconditionally and help guide its destiny," she says. "I dated only one person who came from a two-parent house, and in my culture, it's not a surprise to see single parents holding it down."

Tonight, Badu is lying on her stomach on the floor of the TV room, her laptop on a pillow in front of her, working on Return of the Ankh's liner notes. She takes breaks to feed Mars or help Seven with his homework. "I saw another person evolve when she had Seven," says Queenie. "She was a real mommy from the beginning. It's like she knew exactly what she was supposed to do and how to be a mother. I don't know whether she read up on it or prayed on it, but she was real loving, real nurturing and very, very prepared."

Though Badu's music has always included biblical metaphors and spiritual lyrics, she doesn't adhere to any organized religion. ("Art is my religion," she says.) But the singer is intensely curious about the metaphysical: "I think the atoms in the body rotate at the same rate and on the same axis as the Earth, so that when the Earth speeds up vibrationals, so do the atoms in our body," she says. "The more things the Earth goes through, the more things the body goes through, and our brains are not separate from that."

She'd rather talk science than politics. Her friend Kyle Goen – the artist who made the Leila Khaled portrait – drops by and makes a joke about avoiding driving on Dallas' President George Bush Turnpike. Badu mutters, "I don't even know why we get mad at George Bush. For what?" Goen starts to answer, and she interrupts, "Yeah, but why? They're doing a job that was written for them to do. They're following a script. We need a new bowlin' alley – a whole new setup, a whole new thing. It's not just the individual. The next leader is gonna do the same thing, in a truth disguise."

The conversation turns to Obama, though no one mentions the president by name. "I expected the war in Iraq to end," Goen says, trying to reason with her. "I expected Guantánamo Bay to close."

"That's delusional," Badu says.

"The man said he was against these things!" he responds,.

Badu gets frustrated. "He's a politician," she says. A few minutes later, when Queenie brings home the kids, Badu seems relieved to have the conversation brought to a close. A couple of days later, I ask her what subjects she's still willing to get into an argument about. "In the kitchen, when we were talking about politics, it didn't feel useful," she says. "We don't know what the agenda is. I don't have enough data, so I can't really say. I do believe that getting outside of my mind is one of the most valuable things that I have adopted, not worrying about things that don't really exist."

Lately, she's been thinking that life is a long "process of elimination, of unlearning." Last night was her 39th birthday, and she celebrated with her mom, kids, grandmas, uncles, great-uncles, niece, nephews, cousins. "It's a tradition that everybody gives a little speech about the guest of honor," Badu says. "My uncle said, 'Like I told you when you were little: Whatever you want to be, that's what I want you to be. And if you don't want to be shit, I don't want you to be shit.' It was hilarious to me. What that means is he knows that my life doesn't belong to him, it's all a part of my learning. When I look at my grandma, she does the exact same thing every day, and she's so much at peace. Sometimes I try to adopt her pattern of thinking. There's an old woman inside of me that's so coldblooded that I can't wait to meet her."

This story is from the April 15th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1102: April 15, 2010