Reinvention: New "rugged" Badu abandons poetics

Erykah Badu
World Wide Underground 
Motown (2003)

In 1997 when Erykah Badu released her first album, Baduizm, there was quite a bit of debate about the state of soul and R&B music. Many believed practitioners of the art forms had sold out to commercial success. Badu's entrance to the music scene was a welcome change from the cookie-cutter soul format of synthesized drums and hip-hop flavors.

Baduism employed the stripped-down live sound of drums, bass, guitar, percussion and horns which– along with her undeniable charisma and afro-centric image (think large ethnic head wrappings)– made her an instant standout and propelled her into the spotlight.

Never being one to follow trends, and constantly staying a step ahead of imitators, she reinvented her sound and image on her follow-up album, Mama's Gun, which built off her existing style but added long thematic transitions between the songs. The hip-hop soul that she was once known for fused with rock and reggae for what would be one of the best albums of that year.

This year Badu has returned with a full-length titled World Wide Underground. Again Badu has indulged in reinvention. This time she sports an unkempt 12-inch Afro, t-shirt, and jeans. Her music– well, her music displays a much more rugged aspect of her persona.

World Wide Underground very well may be one of the most underrated albums of 2003, chiefly because it boasts only one marketable single, the horn-heavy track "Danger." That single epitomizes her new direction through its lyrical representation of Badu as an incarcerated drug dealer's girlfriend running his operation while he's in jail.

This is a far cry away from the hyper-intellectual poetics of her first record.

The album is well scripted, with songs blending seamlessly into each other. Unlike Mama's Gun, this time the transitions are eerie and ethereal, more like an Eric Dolphy jazz record than a five-piece jam ensemble. World Wide Underground delivers through and through. Tracks like "Back in the Day" and "The Grind" maintain the singalong quality of previous works but are more blunt in their descriptions of love and life experience.

Her boldness on this record is also its weakness. At times it feels as if Badu is being artsy for the sake of being artsy and not because that's what the song lends itself to. Still, the artiness doesn't take too much away from genius of her music and the talent she employs in her band.

If you haven't picked up World Wide Underground, I suggest you do. It's a hell of a trip you probably won't want to miss.