Oh, Erykah Badu, what makes you tick? Or perhaps I should ask, exactly which time zone is your internal clock set to? Aside from Soundgarden, there was no one I was more looking forward to seeing at Lollapalooza this weekend. So it pains me to admit that the Dallas-born exhibitionist and PR genius left me wanting a little more this past Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, the R&B queen put on a fine show and her authoritative and empowering vision is always on point. But festivals of this magnitude run like clockwork—they have to in order to cram in over 130 acts. So any artist used to working at their own whimsy just doesn’t fly here, and Badu is nothing if not whimsical.
That said, she’s also a diva, and a brilliant creative force to boot, so I navigated past as many sunburned bodies as I could just to get as close to the adidas MEGA stage as possible, giddy with anticipation after having missed her Chicago Theatre run just two months ago. A few minutes past her scheduled 5pm start time a DJ hit the stage and immediately slapped on A Tribe Called Quest’s legendary posse cut “Scenario,” a golden era hip-hop classic guaranteed to get the ganja-fueled gathering even more pumped. But once those turntables (or more likely Serato decks) spun off several other rap ringers Badu’s absence began to grate on the already overheated audience. In fact, it began to feel like a hip-hop 101 listening exercise as we all waited patiently while taking in standards from Lolla vet Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z among others. This was not what any of us had signed up for, and at that moment I began to imagine a few different, erm, scenarios. Perhaps the Afrocentric singer had missed her flight from Baltimore (where she’d performed the previous evening)? Or, just as bad if less likely, was stuck en route having opted to make the trek by tourbus, with fest programmers simply stalling before announcing her cancellation.
About another ten minutes passed before her band members casually strolled on to the stage one by one, temporarily restoring our sense of hope that she’d imminently make her grand entrance. The competent backup band soon replaced the already-tired deck set, taking us through a jazzy, instrumental version of “Amerykahn Promise,” the funky first tune off her incendiary and provocative comeback platter from 2008, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). A bald and mustachioed flutist began to solo over the percolating vamp, during which I drifted off into a daydream wherein I fantasized about just how epic it would be were hometown flute heroine Nicole Mitchell to share this enormous platform with Miss Badu. The two already share so many touchstones, each explicitly informed by science fiction—namely celebrated sci-fi author and Afro-futurism forerunner Octavia E. Butler—and often traveling in similar psychedelic corridors. It’s truly a shame that such a collaboration hasn’t happened yet, because this would’ve been the absolute perfect occasion, not to mention a jazz milestone! Just imagine, an AACM artist performing side by side with the acid-soul queen to a sea of potentially new fans.
Alas, it was not meant to be, and after another tune (hard to call it intro music by then, and I can’t even recall how many more minutes had passed at that point) she casually strolled out like it was just another day. And that’s exactly when my disappointment really began to register, because it simply wasn’t for the hundreds of us that had been up until that point patiently waiting. From her attire, it seemed like she was aware of that much—she hadn’t dressed like it was any other day, though that point’s contentious considering she had the same ‘do in Bodymore the night before, and admirably has never allowed herself to be boxed in by any look. Rather, she’s notorious for wearing outsized wigs à la Patti LaBelle, and other similarly extravagant attire. Here she sported a bleached-blond mohawk that resembled a golden halo, or at moments even a sundial (which might explain why she couldn’t keep track of the time, since her watch was her hairpiece). For a moment I considered the possibility that she was channeling that ol’ “alternative” aesthetic in a nod to Lollapalooza’s radical roots. And perhaps she was, though it’s impossible to say with any certainty. Suffice it to say she’s a total weirdo, and for that I’ll always adore her (regardless of this review, which is admittedly steeped in tough love).
As she dug into deep grooves from her deep catalog, the artist born Erica Abi Wright rattled off an array of aliases, among them Medulla Oblongata, Sarah Bellum, Analog Girl in a Digital World and of course her Twitter handle, Fat Belly Bella, an impressive spate arguably rivaled only by recent Pitchfork fest performer Big Boi. Though a collabo with Mitchell never materialized, I’ll give Badu credit for what in this instance was probably the next best thing: a hypnotic shout out to deceased beat hustler J. Dilla in the form of “the Healer,” a simmering, Madlib-produced, love letter to hip-hop (also off the first volume of her New Amerykah series), making her the first ever Lolla guest to give props to the late Slum Village cofounder. That is, unless Stones Throw CEO Peanut Butter Wolf dropped the Detroit native’s name—which I see no evidence of, though it’s more than likely that PBW dipped into the prolific producer’s extensive catalog during his Perry’s stage DJ set.
The set really got interesting toward the end of her hour-long window, when Badu delivered a spiritual aside that was notably in a similar vein to Lady Gaga’s guidance counselor mumbo jumbo, a.k.a. “The American Dream” (do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be, yadda yadda). However, the older, wiser, and honestly much hipper earth mother broke it down very differently, likely owing to issues of race and gender—two hot button topics, the former of which the headlining fame monster obviously sidesteps when engaging in her epic therapy sessions, a.k.a. concerts. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Badu recalled her elders asking as a young’un, as most of us have been asked countless times along the way, before offering up her childhood peers’ stock responses. “I wanna be a doctor,” the mother of three recalled one saying before revealing her simple, yet sage, aspiration: “I always just wanted to be thoughtful.” It was a profoundly humble statement, especially given the environment, and the rampant consumerism overrunning just about every acre of Grant Park last weekend.
Such unadulterated honesty turned in overwhelming undertaking into an intimate gathering, and was a clever transition into her next tune, not to mention a choice opportunity for her to jump into yet another one of her characters, Lowdown Loretta Brown, or maybe it was Annie the Alchemist. (See? Totally rivaling Sir Lucious Left Foot in the prolific personas department.) Whichever one, she pushed into the sultry shuffle “Annie (Don’t Wair no Panties)“—alternately known as “Don’t Forget the Hot Sauce” by the Badu-fronted, Soulquarian-sewn supergroup Edith Funker—a cheeky cut that might potentially arrive on the last installment of the New Amerykah trilogy. But the fact that she’s still in the promotional phase for her slow-burning, romance-riddled latest, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh, suggests that it’ll be some time until the final puzzle piece arrives.
Like the tone of that recent sophomore installment, the vibe remained at a constant simmer throughout the hour, a quiet storm occasionally lifting to reveal errant, space-rock glimmers. So while at the onset I’d hoped for a higher energy performance, Badu’s strong will and magnetic personality won me over in the end. Speaking of space-rock, Badu’s empowering gospel was still no match for the wailing guitars of vintage rock composite Andrew Stockdale and his workhorse Wolfmother, which promptly began at its alotted 7pm slot in what was an awkward overlap to put it kindly. The sonic clusterfuck briefly recalled the unfortunate collision between Band of Horses and Jane’s Addiction exactly one year ago, though in this instance it was Badu’s own doing, a victim of her own tardiness. Regardless, she remains an R&B goddess, and kudos to Lolla for bringing her on in the first place. Along with fellow soul crooners Mavis Staples and Raphael Saadiq, in shows an admirable attempt on the festival’s part to diversify, even if rap and rock time don’t always align.