Review Summary: Peaks in high fashion and then drops off the cliff
RnB and Soul changed in marvelous fashion in the mid-late 90s when inspired young musicians took the best qualities of old Rnb and Soul and placed them in an unimposing but tight new form. In 1995, D'Angelo released Brown Sugar
which single-handedly set off the impending wave of refined and sophisticated nu-soul artists. Up until Brown Sugar
, RnB was all over the place, deviating far from the original components in which it was made; however, because it had kept the most crucial component, RnB was still recognized as RnB despite evolution in both form and function. Currently, musicians cannot truly own RnB, at least in the United States, unless they are black. People associate it, whether consciously or subconsciously, with black Americans because intertwined in RnB is the collective experiences of black Americans. If RnB is understood from this perspective, the shift in RnB makes a lot of sense. The progression in RnB is reflective of the changing attitudes of black Americans from optimism to pessimism over the last century. Beginning in the 1940s, they sang about hope for the future, faith in freedom, love, and modest joys despite the pain they felt. In the 60s, black groups such as the Supremes and the Temptations persistently sang about these ideas, but the 80s brought about new changes in black music due to changing perceptions of race in American society. In the new environment, the salience of the group shifted to the individual which made RnB, lyrically and musically, more diverse and unique to the artist (Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Mariah Carey) as well as raunchier and steamier as a result of the increasingly indulgent culture developing in predominantly black urban settings (R. Kelly). The aforementioned contemporary artists were incredibly influential in many respects, but they nonetheless contributed to the scattering of the previously uniform RnB sound and thus RnB became an aggregation of genres.
However the old RnB eventually reemerged in the form of nu-soul. Following in the footsteps of D'Angelo or maybe just riding on the coattails of underground trends, Erykah Badu released her debut Baduizm
in similar style. She returned to the attractive aesthetic of old Soul but incorporated the popular trends of the time and instead of embracing the superficial ramblings of her contemporaries, Baduizm
delves into introspective territory. At times it is as if Badu is aware Baduizm
surpasses the mainstream. The very title of the album suggests Badu holds knowledge unbeknownst to the rest of us. The ostensible pretension oozing from the album, from the lyrics to vocal delivery, could be from Badu's detached affiliation with the Five-Percenters. The teachings of the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam, purport eighty-five percent of humans to be unenlightened, ten percent to be in-between dark and light, and five percent to be enlightened. Those who fall into the five percent category are asked to teach the ways of the world to those who do not know. This ideology feeds into what could be called the Badu ideology apparent in the subject matter of Baduizm
In the first third of the album, Badu's seeming musical pretension is warranted; she delivers effortless, well-controlled vocals on top of complementary post-bop and hip-hop beats. Her voice is jazzy, reminiscent of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, but with a type of measured, sensual confidence distinguishing Badu from them. Where they set pent up emotion free, Badu is talkin' bluesy and secretive as if her audience is on the outside, getting a glimpse of her world rather than right there with her. Opening track, “Rimshot (Intro),” is clever and exciting, nicely forming the mood of the album. Right after, the super-jazzy “On and On” references Five-Percenter philsophy saying, “Peace and blessings manifest with every lesson learned… if your knowledge were your wealth then it would be well earned,” suggesting the ignorance of most which Badu continues thematically in the third scat-influenced track “Appletree.” After awhile, the socially aware lyrics and conceptual ideas initially guiding the album get away from Badu and the music, in turn, suffers, becoming sleazy in the “Next Lifetime” and completely over-the-top in “Drama.” By the end, she returns to original form with “Certainly (Flipped It)” and “Rimshot (Outro),” neither of which are lyrically off-putting or lazy and feature Badu's vocals in typically jazzy style, where she shines most.
The problem with Baduizm
is how it deteriorates after showing mastery early on. The opening tracks are head over shoulders above anything else on the album and even though Badu maintains the mood, it becomes almost too chill and focused due to the deficiency in stand-out tracks later in the album. Nothing is terrible and everything is pleasant enough but the middle of the album serves only as background music especially since the lyrics seem implausibly underwhelming given the creative lines she generated in the beginning tracks, which sadly go downhill after fourth track “Otherside of the Game.”
The persona Badu constructs in Baduizm
is not maintained; she supposedly has a lot to tell us but ends up falling into this pattern where she tells us nothing of note, which would have been fine if saccharine, soft, and smooth was what she was going for. However, from the big hair to the out-there clothes, Badu is bold and she undoubtedly wanted to break the RnB scene with pizzazz. Unfortunately, the bold statement she intended is not sustained in Baduizm
Recommended: Rimshot, On and On, Appletree