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.