In a Today interview, Erykah Badu said that even though she accepted people’s desire to refer to her as the queen of neo-soul, she didn’t want to be called that because, in her own words, “I’m going to change and then everybody’s gonna be disappointed.” She continued, “I feel like the term is brilliant, but it’s not me. It’s one part of me.”
Ever since she burst don't the scene, critics and fans alike have always struggled with classifying Erykah Badu's music. The "Tyrone" star carved out a space for herself in the music industry after releasing her first album. The highly successful project helped her win two awards at the Grammys, on top of going multi-platinum within the first three months. While her music was initially categorized as neo-soul, her evolution over the years has made it harder to pin down.
With that in mind, here’s a quick run-through of the evolution of Badu’s music.
Erykah’s first album was a work of art that established her as a force in the music industry. Thanks to the project, she was singled out as one of the founders of the neo-soul — a name coined by record executive Kedar Massenburg. This was mainly because she brought forth something different from what was being offered at the time. The melodies and instrumentation featured on the album had a mix of influences, ranging from R&B, hip-hop, soul, and jazz.
The success of the album led to the work of more artists (such as Lauryn Hill, Maxwell, and D’Angelo) being retrofitted and/or labeled as neo-soul.
True to her words, Erykah did not stay boxed in the confines of neo-soul for long – taking the first opportunity she got to grow out of it through her second album. In the 14-track “Mama’s Gun,” Erykah was able to sample more sounds and create a jazzier product. Straight from the onset, the album hits listeners with an intro characterized by the funky, eclectic sounds of a live band.
To paint a clearer picture of the stories she was trying to portray, she used a good balance of beauty, confidence, sass, and affection in the album’s songs.
“New Amerykah Part One: 4th World War”
Released in 2008, this became Erykah’s fourth studio album – and is considered to be the first in a line of social-centric records from the “Didn’t Cha Know” hit-maker. Like her previous installments, the album features different music styles, including electronica, jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop. In the project, the singer explores various social issues (like bad policing, urban violence, and poverty) facing the Black community.
In general, the album has a static feel that gives it a high-art vibe. According to Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic for New Yorker magazine when the project dropped, Erykah (in this album) demonstrates that she is more of an extension of the black avant-garde music of years past – as opposed to being fully part of the neo-soul genre.
The critic continued, “Not everyone can get away with an album this loose and formless in places,” – referring to some long tracks on the project that have noises without a clear source.