By Mick Stingley
Clad in a black trench coat and top hat, Erykah Badu stood before the sold-out crowd at New York’s Roseland Ballroom on Monday crooning the atmospheric opener “20 Feet Tall.” With four backup singers and a seven-piece band to accompany her, Badu was a smoldering torch who warmed and glowed as the night went on.
She burned through “Out My Mind, Just in Time,” which is also the name of this tour, supporting her March release “New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh.” The song served as a theme for the evening as she sang, “I’d lie for you and cry for you … I gotta do my love for you.”
Self-referential, poignant, outlandish and strikingly beautiful, Badu commanded the stage. Under musical director R.C. Williams Jr., she waltzed through her music with the confidence of an accomplished jazz artist, improvising around the form of her recorded work. There was occasional dissonance — whether scatting or tapping on her Roland drum machine — but she segued effortlessly from one number to the next, quoting her own music (often, with “On and On”) and others’, circling back into a new song.
Her style owes more to jazz than that unfortunate moniker “Queen of Neo-Soul” as she incorporated danceable funk, gospel, R&B rhythm, hip-hop and rap textured with ambitious aural soundscapes throughout. No single term applies to her music.
She is the epic sum of her influences, and the appropriation of many is her art. The starchild of Marvin Gaye and Pink Floyd, Prince and N.W.A., Billie Holiday and Laurie Anderson. Erykah Badu is a singular artist; she might just be out of her mind, but the woman can sing.
And she’s a giver. “This is bigger than the government!” she sang on “The Healer” to resounding cheers. Badu worked the crowd, and the band — with a wave of her hand she stopped the music, frequently — and captivated during “Me” with her soft yet powerful voice. Her assertion early on in the show, “I’m an analog girl in a digital world!” might explain her self-perception and attitude, but it resonated with the room.
Slinking through numbers like Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, Badu concentrated much the night’s performance on her pair of “New Amerykah” releases but favored the audience with plenty of gems. From the Giorgio Moroder-esque dance number “I Want You” to “Appletree” and “Love of My Life,” Badu kept people moving and swaying. The hip-hop-flavored showstopper “Back in the Day” proved her old-school chops as she rapped bits from Whodini, Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh and N.W.A. She followed with a cover of Outkast’s “Liberation.”
Badu closed the show at midnight with “Soldier” and wowed with her 2000 hit, “Bag Lady,” though she did not perform her recent singles “Window Seat” and “Turn Me Away” because of time constraints. Regardless, at almost two hours in, Badu gave it her all.