Perhaps the first thing you notice about Erykah Badu is her uncanny vocal similarity to Billie Holiday — from the very beginning of Baduizm, Badu’s debut, the boho chanteuse’s timbre and inflections recall Lady Day. By the end of the album, however, it’s clear that Badu is from the Diana Ross school of Billie Holiday imitation: Like Ross in her portrayal of Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, Badu is mainly interested in just being herself.
That individuality serves Badu well. Baduizm‘s strength lies in her ability to filter jazz vocals through hip-hop without any fuss or fanfare, much as D’Angelo and Mary J. Blige have fused rap and R&B. The funky piano riff that centers “4 Leaf Clover” owes as much to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Gz and Hustlas” as it does to Thelonious Monk. The simple blues of the freestyle skit “Afro,” meanwhile, transports the listener to New York’s Swing Street of the 1950s — until Badu complains, “You said you was gonna take me to see Wu-Tang, baby,” over trumpet by young jazz lion Roy Hargrove. Former Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter also shows up for duty, on the Marvin Gaye-ish, socially conscious “Drama.”
Baduizm was produced by, among others, newcomer Madakwu Chinwah and the Philadelphian rap instrumentalists Roots, who know something about making hip-hop with an organic feel. But Badu, of course, is the real focus here: Baduizm showcases the heart and soul of a bohemian B-girl who happens to have an effortless jazz swing.