There’s a collective sharp intake of breath in the Royal Festival Hall, as a voice comes out of the speakers. “Erykah will be joining us as soon as possible.” In Badu World – or “Badubotron”, the singer has been calling it of late – time is elastic. Irrelevant. It could mean waiting hours for her to go on stage. Even hours and hours. In recent years, she has perhaps become known as much for her loose time-keeping – and letting loose some unpopular opinions – as for being the bohemian soul sage who changed the sound of R&B in the late-90s and whose influence is everywhere in modern music.
But not tonight. The first of two shows billed to celebrate a quarter-century of her debut album, Baduizm, the Dallas native swaggers into view, 15 minutes shy of her allotted start time. Her excellent players, all nine of them, have tantalised the audience with a ripple of dialtones from Caint Use My Phone, which riffs on one of her best-loved tracks, Tyrone. And now she is under the spotlights, poised to shoot, wearing a hat within her signature Holy Mountain hat, fur jacket and extreme leg warmers by Myah Hasbany that look like floofy sea anemones. They swoosh hypnotically. It speaks to her current mode as a front-row fashionista but it also seems to suggest “outlaw”.
Since Badu’s last release, an acclaimed mixtape, came out almost a decade ago, her live shows are the closest clue to who she is in 2022: facing forwards, forever in her own orbit. Those expecting a trip solely back through her classic album tonight – which sold millions when it was released in 1997 and won two Grammys – for their pricey ticket might have been disappointed. Badu isn’t entertaining clear-cut nostalgia. She plays a cluster of Baduizm’s songs, often massaged into new shapes, alongside other favourites like Window Seat, the 10-minute Out My Mind, Just In Time and, from Baduizm followup Mama’s Gun, Time’s A Wastin’ and Green Eyes (on which she sounds particularly superb).
This tantric line through her catalogue creates, on the whole, an eccentric fantasy spectacle. It’s where earthy, primal energy meets computerised frontiers, synths and sci-fi visuals: yogic breaths; her voice erupting from pure control to untethered yell; a jazzy Todd Rundgren cover; cages of multicoloured lasers amid hammering congas; a gripping, drum-fuelled cover of Burning Spear’s Jah No Dead; the brilliant moment where she dances like she’s in Fela Kuti’s band; the bleeps and bloops as if powering down after a song. The cosmic soup is exhilarating and, at times, dizzying, and makes the tunes where it’s just Badu and the piano, singing the blues, land harder.
And what of the future? This week she featured on Misunderstood, a new track by the Roots with Tierra Whack, though there’s still no news on her own material. For now, words of wisdom will have to do. Badu has long been looked to for spiritual guidance and the overriding message here appears to be one of self-reliance. She recites Faith, Hope & Charity’s disco hit To Each His Own as individualist gospel (“The best of business … is to mind your business”) and ends with hope: “There will be a brighter day, if you believe in brighter days.” Erykah Badu: totally timeless.