Erykah Badu: Anything but Single
by Joanna Moore (Business Administration/Finance), published December 4th 2016
Despite critical success, a handful of famous boyfriends, and an eighteen-year-long career riddled with controversy, “Erykah Badu” has never become a household name. Though infamous within the hip-hop community for her mystical, life-altering effect on her boyfriends and revered in the R&B community for her impact on neo-soul music, she’s never achieved mainstream status.
To clarify, Ms. Badu’s work has appeared on both the R&B charts and the Billboard Hot 100, but where is the single immediately associated with her name? Her first album yielded the track “On and On” that peaked at number twelve on the Hot 100. A collaboration with long-term boyfriend Common, “Love of My Life (Ode to Hip-Hop)” hit number one on the R&B charts for twenty weeks and peaked at number seven on the Hot 100, but the song still did not offer Ms. Badu superstardom. The rest of her career follows this pattern: her music made ripples, but no giant wave.
Maybe it was overshadowed by the men she “Badu’d.” Andre 3000, Common, The D.O.C., and Jay Electronica all claim to be deeply affected by their relationships with Ms. Badu. Once glamorous, indulgent rappers, the men emerged from the period of time spent with her having “found themselves,” sporting crochet pants and dashikis. They embrace (borderline exploit) their African heritage and no longer find joy in name brands and luxurious lifestyles. Despite the lasting effects her love has had on these famous men, her name never reached the level of recognition that theirs hold.
After her first album, Baduizm, in 1997, Badu went on to release six more studio albums and tour venues all over the country with great success. By 2010, she was working with names as well-known as Lil Wayne, receiving awards, and gaining national attention for exploiting the location of JFK’s assassination for a music video. Still, there is an obvious lack of one thing: a single that launched her into superstardom.
There are many reasons why this never happened for her. Her neo-soul music had dense messages and was influenced by jazz, funk, 1970s R&B, and 1980s hip-hop. She was known to exploit her African heritage, something her various significant others also embraced, and she never shied away from uncomfortable or strange topics like addiction, nihilism, and religion. It is possible that these things made her simply unappealing to the general public, or at least to pop music. While her male counterparts, namely Andre 3000, were also experimenting and pushing the boundaries of hip-hop, their subject matter was much easier to digest.
It is feasible that mainstream success was never Ms. Badu’s goal–that her influence on soul music, especially the sub-genre of neo-soul, is enough to earn her a spot as one of the greats. However, I would argue that Ms. Badu would have enjoyed more recognition from the public. Why else would she work on a single about Wi-Fi with an artist who’d just had his first hit single in 2016? While I would not put it past her to work with young artists for the pure reason of helping them grow or genuinely enjoying their music, it does feel like Ms. Badu has an ulterior motive. Her known narcissism and tireless efforts to gain attention suggest that she is still waiting to become a superstar. And maybe, her next personal-style-compromising pop track with an artist like D.R.A.M. or Lil Wayne will be the one.