The year is 1997, and the leading women in R&B were in two lanes: the heart-wrenching musings of the around the way girl in the key of Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige, and the striking vocal prowess that leapt from the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. With perfectly coiffed tresses and stylish ensembles from luxury fashion designers, the standard would soon be met with its celestial antithesis, brought about by a petite young lady from Dallas, Texas, who would become known as Erykah Badu. Adorned in tall head wraps, kemetic jewelry and distinctive African-inspired garb, Badu stood out aesthetically and musically from her contemporaries. Mysterious yet inviting, Badu properly introduced herself on her debut album Baduizm, a project that beautifully blended enigmatic cerebral lyrics, subtle jazz intonations, and hip-hop sensibilities to create something that modernized soul music in a refreshing way, helping give birth to the sub-genre neo-soul.
Trademarked by Kedar Massenburg — the former president of Motown Records who discovered and signed Badu to his label, Kedar Records — in the late ‘90s, neo-soul was created as a promotional tool amid the rising success of artists like Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, and D’Angelo (who was managed by Massenburg), whose debut album Brown Sugar solidified the sub-genre. But it was Badu’s Baduizm that not only stamped its validity but foreshadowed its staying power decades after its invention.
During its birth, neo-soul was seen as a fleeting ploy that wouldn’t survive longer than a floppy disk. It didn’t seem to make much sense because soul music had already proved to be withstanding. How can soul music be “new” if it had existed long before this revamped reiteration? What exactly were the similarities between soul music then, and “new” soul music during this time period? Even today, most of the artists categorized under the sub-genre have spoken out against it, an apprehension that Massenburg had already addressed in the early 2000s as neo-soul was truly taking a hold on music.
“When you classify music, it becomes a fad, which tends to go away,” he explained in a 2002 Billboard interview. “But soul music is soul music. There’s nothing really new under the sun. But, in terms of marketing today, there’s the need to categorize music for consumers so they know what they’re getting. So, for lack of a different term, I coined neo-soul.”
Just like its predecessor, neo-soul had an unmistakable sound. It contained the heart, soul and energy of R&B; the cadence and varied lyrical topics akin to hip-hop; and embodied the improvisational spirit of jazz. But the main common denominator between the original genre and its offshoot is how they both make listeners feel. There’s an emotional pull that settles in the spirit when it comes to the two music factions: an inarguable magnetism that renders fans into a melodic trance. It’s a characteristic shared by the freshman class of neo-soul: D’Angelo, Maxwell and Erykah Badu.
While the men experienced much success in getting the genre off the ground, it was Badu that shined the spotlight a bit brighter on this burgeoning concept. As she was among the wave of this new music movement, she was the first female artist during its incubation to truly assist in catapulting the timeless feel and sound we know it to be.
Badu doesn’t claim to be the queen of neo-soul, as it has been projected onto her since its inception. While she hasn’t necessarily been on board with being responsible for heading the curve, that doesn’t negate why Baduizm is the best neo-soul album of all time.
Of the three debut albums, Baduizm was the most distinct. Brown Sugar took a contemporary spin on soul music, and Urban Hang Suite was a modulated funky blend of R&B and smooth jazz. Badu’s inaugural body of work took key ingredients from inspired genres and concocted a sound that was yet to be produced. It wasn’t derived from a previously recognizable sound; it extracted elements from familiar categories to create an idiosyncratic offering we hadn’t quite heard before.
Badu flipped people on their heads with the intriguing teachings of the Five-Percenter Nation on her first single “On & On.” Unlike most artists, Badu expanded her listeners to a higher level of consciousness, exposing them to tenets and ways of life they may not have previously considered. Baduizm also stood out for its incorporation of hip-hop. Tapping into her teenage rapping days, Badu fused the spoken and sung word in a way that beautifully married the two, whether it was the freestyle flow of “Sometimes (Mix #9)” or “Otherside of the Game.”
But hip-hop also drives the instrumentation of the album, particularly the boom-bap punch of East Coast hip-hop. Baduizm begins and ends with boom-bap, with “Rim Shot (Intro)” kicking it all off. The Roots’ contributing production to tracks like “Sometimes (Mix #9), “Otherside of the Game,” and “Sometimes” only adds to this, the band having made their start as a jazz rap group. Here, a cross-pollination of regional musical cues takes place: Badu’s hazy, Southern drawl intermingling with the East Coast’s punching and swaggering drums, resulting in some of the album’s best moments.
Where hip-hop’s rhythmic pulse anchors Baduizm, it’s the soul of Badu’s lyrics and how she delivers them that adds to its distinctness, especially on songs centered around intimacy, love, and romance. Where Badu differed from her peers was how she explored these themes: “Otherside of the Game” and its story of a soon-to-be mother conflicted about staying with her man who’s involved in the drug game; “Next Lifetime” and its sentiment that a love that can’t — and may never — get the chance to happen in one lifetime could happen in the next. In these songs, Badu not only showcases her storytelling abilities through music, but offers a refreshing perspective on these themes, too, her voice able to go from a subdued coo to a powerful croon that helps to express the range of emotions that come with something as complex as love.
Baduizm ended up being a commercial and critical success, with the album going three times platinum and winning the Best R&B Album honor at the 40th Annual Grammy Awards. With her debut, Badu cultivated a space for artists who wanted to create boundary-pushing soul music like herself. Her introduction laid the groundwork for the likes of Jill Scott and India.Arie to build upon, as well as contemporary descendants like Ari Lennox, Mahalia, and Durand Bernarr. But it also foreshadowed just how interconnected soul, R&B and hip-hop would become, offering a taste of the innovative impact that came with the Soulquarians’ release of influential and timeless albums in the early 2000s.
It’s no secret how beholden neo-soul is and has become over the years. Its impact left a memorable impression on music, fashion and culture, as well as a lasting effect on the millions of people that experienced this neoteric craze in real time. The genesis of the genre outlived any cynical prediction, transcending time bounds and country borders. 25 years later, Baduizm is an undeniably crucial reason why that is.
Danielle Brissett is a music and culture writer from Brooklyn, NY. Through her work, the R&B aficionado archives and highlights moments from an explicative standpoint. In whatever she does, music will always be the connection.
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