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Erykah Badu Wants You to Leave Other People’s Bitches Alone

The R&B star brought old tunes and good vibes to the Armory Wednesday night.

This woman could absolutely fly if she wanted to.
Billy Briggs

Erykah Badu will make you wait just to prove she’s worth it.

It was 9:15, more than an hour later than the visionary soul eccentric (or vice versa) was scheduled to appear onstage at the Armory, when her band members took their places and two drummers welcomed us with competing solos. After a recorded Badu voiceover informed us how cellphone signals disorient bees, which convinced everyone in the room to stop filming and photographing the stage (haha, just kidding, of course not), a full band jam split the difference between hyping the star-to-come and vamping till she was ready.

Well, we’d already waited 20 years since Badu’s last headlining show in the Twin Cities. (Though she did give us a great, if discursive, if brief, performance at Soundset in 2018.) What’s the rush?

And then: Badu. The 50-year-old Texan was ensconced in the sort of glittery multicolored cape that Apollo Creed might have worn if he’d represented Earth in its first intergalactic boxing match, clashing perfectly with her baseball cap on top of a knotted bandana. She tapped a few beats on a drum pad and boasted her way through “Dial-Afreaq,” which pulsed into her dis- and reassembled version of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.” The self-dubbed “Nubian phenomenon” next introduced her selves, reeling off a longer series of alter egos and a.k.a.’s than Raymond J. Johnson Jr. (I am contractually allowed one obscure, dated reference per review), from Badulla Oblongata to Sara Bellum to her Twitter handle, Fat Belly Bella.

There’s a reason Badu followed up her 1997 smash debut Baduizm with a concert recording 10 months later. She’s never made a bad album—she’s even made a couple great ones—but the definitive Erykah Badu experience is live. Yes, her albums percolate into a disorienting retro-futurist groove her well-tutored bands can’t always quite recapture in the moment, but they also lean heavily on mystique and vibe, casting her as an introspective spiritualist whose visions requires our assent. You gotta be in the mood. Her mood.

Onstage though, Badu is a gregarious free-associator—even her rehearsed bits sound spontaneous. She’s funny as hell, and she understands the role of the performer as icebreaker (a gift rarer than you might think), that throwing a party isn’t just about providing a soundtrack but creating a sense of a shared event. She presents herself less as a seeker of the truth than a dabbler in the arcane whose curiosity has provided her access to the cosmic joke she’d like to let us all in on. Lots of musicians can aurally simulate the dazed wooziness of getting high, but Badu gives you the stoned giggles too.

(On a more serious tip, Badu met with George Floyd’s family after the show in honor of what would have been his 48th birthday.)

Badu’s now gone a half-dozen years without releasing a new album: That was the odd, short, satisfying U Cain’t Use My Phone, a concept EP about our constant electronic pocket companions. The way it drifts from familiar melody to dreamy reverie, blurring when one track ends and another begins, its title riffing off the punchline to Badu’s curb-kicking classic “Tyrone,” the melody of Drake’s then-chart-dominating “Hotline Bling” repeatedly recurring, is also the closest a Badu studio album has come to mirroring her concert performances, so that album provided a fitting backbone for her set.

Well, “backbone” is too solid a metaphor—let’s say it snaked through the evening, producing both “Phone Down,” which promises physical pleasures even greater than doomscrolling or texting, and a take on New Edition’s “Mr. Telephone Man” that crackles into electronic shards like a relationship being dissolved in the ether.

Badu summed up her other running theme when she announced that there would be one rule for the night: “Mind yo bidness.” This led to a full-bodied take on the early disco hit “To Each His Own,” from the studio trio Faith Hope & Charity and “Hustle” kingpin Van McCoy. To put her individual stamp on it, Badu modified its chant of “Leave other people’s business alone” to also apply to “bitches,” an equally valid philosophy. The song would return later in the evening, which would probably have been the second time ever that most of the audience had ever heard it.

Badu called out to her ’70s babies (yo!) and ’80s babies before getting to her more-numerous-than-expected ’90s babies, (“I been waiting for you to grow the fuck up,” she sang), with no love for the ’60s babies scattered throughout. She asked us to light the room with our phones (what about the bees?) and yell our names. (“Shout out your own damn self!”) She livened up fan favorites from ye olde Baduizm, which established her headwrapped and incense-drenched pop persona, shouting, “All the people in the back/What the fuck you lookin’ at?” amid “On & On,” its graceful yet wobbly rhythm still a neo-soul wonder, and climaxing “Other Side of the Game” with a high note you might not have know she had in her.

To achieve the intimate camaraderie of her shows, Badu has sacrificed a slice of the emotional depth she’s capable of: Songs that benefit from her introspection, like the sulky “Window Seat” and cautionary “Bag Lady,” felt a little glib. And she’s maybe also limited how much of her vocal technique to feature—not that she didn’t sound great, but she sings for effect rather than mood. (Wild to think that when she emerged Badu was occasionally slotted alongside a jazz-pop singer like Madeleine Peyroux for exploring a timbre reminiscent of Billie Holiday, considering the wiser, less delicate direction she’s taken since.)

The lighting design was extravagant without being garish. In keeping with Badu’s spiritual themes, a spot encased her in a smokily, illuminated pyramid at one point and a prismatic cone at another. Her sound was tight: bass carrying the melody, gauzy keyboards, showy drum fills that still feel right in place. And for backup, Badu was supported by a gaggle of singers in hazmat suits, who were allowed a moment to show off their chops individually during “Window Seat,” offering up bits of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and Dione Farris’s “I Know,” while the drummer’s solo vocal was more direct: “I want some pussy.”

The inevitably climactic “Tyrone” was a showcase for Badu’s re-creative spirit. She reeled off a list of alternate communication methods (“use mental telepathy”), and suddenly zeroed in on “my,” accelerating her repetitions of the word until it seemed a half-measure from launching into “Surfin’ Bird,” which spurred the band into a moment of circusy cartoon funk I can’t describe better because I was laughing too much to concentrate.

Badu encored with an extended “Bag Lady” that strayed into a surprisingly apt reggae lope and gave her space to lasciviously single out a lucky(?) fan named Haskell: “His energy is calling out something.” She soon feigned shame at her advances, telling us “This is not how I wanted to end this night,” and after all there was only one way for the night to end: with a full-Armory chant of “Leave other people’s bitches alone.” So, next time someone messes with your bitch, tell ’em Badu ain’t havin’ that, and her fans ain’t neither.

Setlist
Dial’Afreaq
Hello
To Each His Own
On & On
Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip Hop)
Appletree
Phone Down
Mr. Telephone Man
Other Side of the Game
Time’s a Wastin’
Back in the Day (Puff)
I Want You
Don’t Stop the Music
Window Seat
Cel U Lar Device
Tyrone
To Each His Own (Reprise)
Bag Lady