People can’t help but fall in love with Erykah Badu.
On Valentine’s Day, the legendary songstress and Los Angeles-based bassist Thundercat brought nearly 3,000 devotees to The Armory. The former drill court’s hardwood floors and high ceilings brought to mind a high school gym, a fitting setting for attendees giddy with the magic of possibility.
All the spells, of course, being cast by Ms. Badu herself.
Concertgoers eager to celebrate with the queen of Neo-Soul grew ansty as the night dragged on, some even leaving in frustration before the main event, citing time and poor sound quality.
But any anxieties about the following day’s commitments were quelled by 11 p.m.
When Badu joined her nine-piece band — with Thundercat, her former session musician, pulling double duty on bass — for a cover of an Isley Brothers’ cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me,” the crowd’s cheers rivaled Beatlemania. They were head over heels for Badu.
Most of her followers are.
To them, Badu is a sage. She’s mercurial, charismatic and revered for her ability to cut through space, time and emotion — on and off stage. Her work becomes gospel, and it’s not hard to see why.
Her seven albums and two mixtapes manage to be both of the times and timeless. Badu has produced a catalog that’s woven its way into the most impactful and even mundane fabric of listeners’ lives across more than 20 years.
“Back in The Day” and “Honey” likely knocked out of a car speaker or at a backyard barbeque. “Bag Lady” is the gentle reminder from friend to forge a path forward from the pain and trauma of past relationships. “Soldier” is the knowing and hopeful protest song, and “Certainly” is the pick-me-up of self-determination.
Still, it’s another thing to glean Badu’s teachings in person.
On this particular evening, the singer stood at her pulpit in a glittering red cape and her trademark towering hat, encircled in a cone of beaming lasers. With agility, she oscillated between wisecracks, spiritual sermons and political commentary; she spoke of the Florida school shooting and how the revolutionary Zapatistas of Southern Mexico inspire her.
Badu, like other artists of her caliber, has fallen prey to the culture of idolatry that asks fans to fashion talented creators as prophets and soothsayers, but never humans. Whether she was waxing poetic about living in the moment or joking about writing rhymes for Andre 3000, the father of her eldest son, the audience at The Armory hung on her every word.
The best mirror for this unyielding devotion was during her rendition of “Out My Mind, Just in Time.”
The torch song is already a slow-burn spanning 10 minutes on “New Amerykah Pt. 2” but she let the song languish even more live.
“I lie for you, I cry for you / And pop for you, and break for you / And hate for you, and I’ll hate you too / If you want me to,” Badu sang over a creeping piano.
Her pregnant pauses were punctuated by whistles, cheers and exclamations of “Preach!,” which would continue throughout the night.
The song, Badu’s plea for a lover to stay, was transformed into a plea for her.
Badu welcomes the reverence, but its dangerous territory. Art has the capacity to heal, mobilize communities and challenge cultural norms. But by deifying our favorite artists, we are asking them to deliver on the impossible.
In Badu’s case, her art is conflated with her public persona. This fallacy, that anything Badu says or does is legendary because she is doing it, mistakenly places her above critique and sends fans petering toward disappointment and heartbreak anytime there’s a crack in the facade.
Spending Valentine’s Day with Erykah Badu, like most of her shows, was magical. She’s a masterful performer with a voice that’s hardly waned over the years and a knack for ensuring a song never sounds the same twice. But the core of that charm is the ineffability of her music, the way it lives in her fans’ hearts.
Taking Badu off a pedestal — “kill your idols,” so to speak — is probably the best way to keep the magic there.
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