Erykah Badu is a vanishing specimen, a pop star who courts controversy - see the "Window Seat" video, coming soon to a Dallas courtroom near you - not out of some narcissistic need to be in the headlines, but because she is legitimately different. Sunday night at Verizon, she could have been a 21st-century female George Clinton, looking for higher ground through the most low-down music she could make.
Greeting the three-quarter full house with a flashlight, top hat and languid B-3 groove, Badu and her band - which was the size of a small orchestra - opened with a simmering suite of dusky jazz that, throughout "20 Feet Tall" and "Out My Mind, Just In Time," turned up the tension one instrument (flute, electric piano) and breathy vocal at a time.
The pulse quickened on "The Healer," Badu's operatic vocalizing and computer talk snuggling up to the band's velvety pillow-funk. A little Diana Ross & the Supremes crept into the purple-lit "Umm Hmm," which otherwise deepened the groove enough to open a portal to a different Motown era - Stevie Wonder's early to mid-'70s albums. "On & On," which brought Badu out of South Dallas to the pop charts way back in the day of 1997, was hotter than July and then some.
Spacey as she seems, Badu knows exactly what she's doing. She dresses her songs up in those luscious, humid arrangements - occasionally the set hinted at drum & bass, jungle or electroclash, but mostly it was as old-school as they come - because her lyrics would be pretty hard to swallow otherwise, especially for the Y chromosomes in the crowd. "You don't want to fall in love with me," she cautioned over and over again on "Fall In Love (Your Funeral)," over a P-Funk/muscle-relaxer brew that made it almost impossible not to.
She was even more outspoken, or perhaps plainspoken, on "You Loving Me": "You loving me, and I'm fucking your friends... don't take it personal baby, it's your turn to be strong." It takes a strong man indeed to hang with a woman of this caliber - and an even stronger one to cede her the high ground, and realize that at no time will she not be the one calling all the shots. Mama don't take no mess.
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Such an arrangement does have its rewards, though, namely the company of a woman who can be as earthy and profane as any male gangsta rapper, like Badu's buddy and co-star in Sunday's set-introducing short film Lil Wayne (it closed with the caption "Free Lil Wayne"). Case in point: "Annie," which lionized its greasy O'Jays bass line almost as much as the titular woman for whom undergarments are a nonissue: "She may not wear no drawers, but I bet she don't forget the hot sauce."
Then came "Next Lifetime," whose breezy air belied its spirit-crushing subject - falling in love with someone who is already committed to another. There are a few ways of resolving such a thorny situation in this lifetime, but none of them are anywhere near as smooth and supple as the song.
Is there any way we can turn Lilith Fair over to Badu and M.I.A. for a week this summer, just to see what happens? And can they take Janelle Monae, whose energetic opening set mashed up show-tune standards, cooing Corinne Bailey-Rae R&B and wiggy psychedelic rock like an MGM musical on the bridge of Battlestar Galactica, for the whole tour?
For more photos from the concert, check out our slideshow.