Erykah Badu Casts A Freakadelic Spell On Constitution Hall

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

As Erykah Badu's band played an introductory instrumental groove Wednesday at Constitution Hall, the bewitching soul singer sashayed onto the stage and struck a dramatic, elegant pose. It was a relatively standard diva's entrance from the most atypical of all contemporary R&B stars.

But Badu quickly dispatched any notion that she was about to stage a conventional concert as, in short order, she sprayed some sort of elixir onto her tongue; popped a pill in her mouth; took a swig from a Thermos; crouched over an electronic drum machine and began pressing buttons; and then defiantly, dramatically, turned her back on the audience as the song concluded. All this while wearing a tiered black dress that looked something like a folded shower curtain, and a plumed hat that was perched askew atop a black knit stocking cap.

Clearly, Badu was just positioning herself for takeoff on yet another strangely compelling -- and flat-out strange -- journey through her peculiar soul universe. And the audience understood, cheering Badu's every eccentric move, of which there were many during the first of her two concerts here. (A second was scheduled for last night.)

For 2 1/2 hours, Badu ciphered her own curious cosmos to spellbinding effect: She was at once brilliant and baffling, singing songs about personal and planetary politics -- about love and war, about independence and inspiration, about revolution and "Tyrone" -- while interjecting her considerable idiosyncrasies into the set.

She introduced herself by using several of her aliases, including Sarah Bellum, Analog Girl in a Digital World and Lowdown Loretta Brown. She repeatedly instructed her 11-piece band to break down mid-song -- if not mid-lyric -- making for a long, unpredictable night of stops and starts.

She rang a tuning fork during "The Healer," a song from her latest masterstroke, "New Amerykah (Part One: 4th World War)." She performed a detonative solo on the drum machine by way of an introduction to a rearranged version of her breakthrough single, "On & On." She triggered surprising musical samples on her laptop before, during and after her songs.

During "Twinkle," she was joined onstage by a man who delivered a rhythmic sermon in an ancient African language. She wandered into the audience to sing "Bag Lady," which she stopped midstream to do a mock talk show.

Near the end of the freewheeling set, while singing the bereft, rambling lament "Green Eyes," Badu did an interpretive dance in which oversize exercise balls were rolled on and off the stage. Wearing nothing more than tights, leotard and stocking cap, Badu even sang directly to the balls before kicking one of them off the stage with her bare foot.

The audience roared as if Badu had kicked a game-winning field goal. "Thank you for letting me be creative, letting me be me," she said.

At 37, Badu is a veteran of the so-called neo-soul scene, having first made a splash with her acclaimed 1997 debut, "Baduizm." She's been anything but prolific since, releasing just one full-length album (2000's "Mama's Gun") before the arrival of "New Amerykah" in February.

Now, as in 1997, she blends soul, jazz, funk, blues and hip-hop, singing in a fluid voice whose most obvious data point is Billie Holiday. But Badu is more like the Björk of R&B, a fearless artist with a rangy, instantly recognizable voice and a doggedly singular vision.

Badu can be both completely unhinged and acutely self-aware, and Wednesday, she seemed to be laughing at her own strangeness, even as she reveled in it. After dancing with a chair at the end of "On & On," she smiled at herself in the mirror. And she giggled after blowing kisses to two of the exercise balls.

Still, like most divas, Badu is fueled at least in part by an innate need to be loved. She admitted as much in introducing her new single, "Soldier," a winding narrative about the magnetic pull of gangs in the ghetto: Saying that she wanted to "see how you feel about it," Badu told the crowd to "keep in mind that I'm an artist and I'm sensitive about my [expletive]." At song's end, though, she struck a triumphal pose, flexing her biceps while nodding knowingly.

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