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Pop Music Review

Badu's New Onstage Persona: Call It Erykah, Unwrapped

March 12, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

There was a dramatic moment in Erykah Badu's concert Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre that was clearly intended to be a showstopper--and it might have been if you hadn't see Lauryn Hill do virtually the same thing in 1999.

The real drama, it turned out, was what followed in a two-hour show in which Badu reinvented herself as a performer and pop presence.

For the opening numbers, the singer wore the regal, foot-high head wrap that has been her fashion trademark since she came on the pop scene with the dazzling "Baduizm" album in 1996.

The cloth covering was something that set her apart, as did the individuality and ambition of Badu's music, which combined pop-soul-jazz tradition with contemporary, hip-hop sensibilities.

You felt in her best numbers the exotic sophistication of Billie Holiday plus the commentary and grace of Stevie Wonder. In an R&B scene that had little sense of history, Badu was welcome indeed.

So it was startling Friday when Badu suddenly took off the wrap, revealing her shaved head. The move was timed to a line in "Cleva," a song of self-affirmation, about stripping away protective layers and revealing the true self.

The problem was, Hill used the same device during her 1999 solo tour. During "Doo Wop (That Thing)," her sisterhood hit about holding on to one's heritage, she took off her cap to let her dreadlocks dangle freely.

So Badu's move didn't just seem secondhand--it also drew an unfavorable musical comparison to Hill.

"Baduizm" helped open a commercial door to the thoughtful neo-soul movement that now includes such valuable figures as Hill, Macy Gray, Jill Scott and Angie Stone. Indeed, the revelation and probing of those artists have gone far beyond Badu's own music. The musical foundations of Badu's second studio album, last year's "Mama's Gun," were still stylish, but the thoughts on such matters as sexual politics were too often generic. As a writer, she doesn't strip away enough layers.

That made her entrance Friday all the more off-putting (she also performed Saturday). After strong opening sets by rapper Common and promising funk-soul singer Bilal, Badu walked to the microphone slowly, with an air of icy self-admiration.

Where this sometime actress once seemed ideal for the role of the soulful Holiday, she now seemed better equipped to portray the diva-like Diana Ross.

Little did we know that Badu was just setting us up.

When she took off the head wrap, she said goodbye to the cool restraint of her old image and became a physically aggressive, performance-minded chanteuse. The music, supplied solidly by a seven-piece band and three backup singers, also benefited from her increased energy and playfulness.

Badu is capable of writing hits, such as the humorous "Tyrone" and cautionary "Bag Lady," but her real talent rests in her performance instincts. Some of those instincts (especially the modern dance steps) are pretentious in a pop setting, which suggests she might benefit from a wider theatrical framework.

The lesson Friday was that Badu may not be the musical visionary we once thought, but her future may be just as bright in theater or film, where she can compensate for the lack of revelation in her songs by staging the music in imaginative ways.

She did just that by putting "Green Eyes"--a song that simply mirrors plaintive jazz ballads from the '30s--into an intimate, vintage nightclub setting. The music was totally retrogressive, but the presentation was captivating. This is the Badu worth following.

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