It's not surprising that someone in the building-block world of pop music would eventually try to combine the exotic sophistication of Billie Holiday with the melodic grace of Stevie Wonder.
The wild card that makes Erykah Badu so special is that the stylish, Texas-born singer and songwriter also throws into the mix the commentary and tradition of the late Bob Marley.
Much as the trailblazing reggae star did in the '70s, Badu assumed the role of a cultural revolutionary at the sold-out Greek Theatre on Sunday, using her music to educate and inspire.
Where the fiery Marley came across at times as a grass-roots guerrilla fighter, the cool, controlled Badu is more remindful of a teacher whose topic is part social history and part contemporary sociology. Her approach was reflected in everything from her African-style head wrap to the use of the Swahili word for "mother" as a song title ("Ye Yo").
Even on a rainy night when many in the audience spent much of the time trying to see over umbrellas or rushing periodically for shelter, Badu achieved a remarkable sense of community.
"I'm feelin' high," the hip-hop star sang during "On & On," her signature 1997 hit, and she kept the audience on a similar level thanks to the seductiveness of her music and the purpose of her themes.
On a bill with hip-hop band the Roots and sexy soul crooner Chico DeBarge (both of whom have been reviewed here recently), Badu stuck to the material that served as the foundation of her Grammy-winning debut album, 1997's "Baduizm," and her subsequent live album, "Erykah Badu Live."
It's rare for a singer to release a live album as her second CD, but Badu, 27, is at her most artful on stage, where she reshapes the music in delightful, often subtle ways to fit the evening's mood.
Even though she went with the same songs and even pretty much the same order of the live album, the 80-minute performance didn't seem stale. In her remarks between songs, she even used the audience's discomfort with the rain to underscore her message about society's shared challenges and goals.
On the opening "Rimshot," Badu led her seven backing musicians and singers through a kind of musical gymnastics with such agility and delight that it was easy to assume that this is an artist who is simply enthralled with musical technique.
But the remaining songs covered a wide range of emotions and themes. There is a marvelous complexity to such tunes as "Other Side of the Game," a look at the potential conflict between life's various choices and relationships, or "Certainly," a reflection on the history of racism in America.
Don't, however, get the idea that Badu is simply a woman of ideas. As a singer, she has remarkable elasticity and command. Unlike such best-selling vocalists as Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, who often overpower their material, Badu delivers the notes with a confidence and ease that makes the words all the more powerful.
Badu's style may incorporate some obvious models, but her vision is wonderfully unique.