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The Queen Speaks: An Interview with Erykah Badu

Interviews

By Craig Jenkins

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Photo via Getty / Paras Griffin

Five years have passed since the last Erykah Badu album, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), was released, but she feels oddly ever-present. On stage, and on social media, she remains close to her constituency even in the absence of a new product to sell. When the gumbo’s good as Baduizm, Mama’s Gun, Worldwide Underground, and the like, you let it linger awhile. Fans won't have to ration much longer, though.

Ms. Badu’s autumn is stacked: This month, she released her first new song in over a year (not counting a quick cameo on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s “Rememory,” from the spring’s Surf) in the sprawling, elegant “Hotline Bling But You Caint Use My Phone Mix.” It’s the first drop from a mixtape also called But You Caint Use My Phone, after the classic dig in her 1997 single “Tyrone,” that she promises will be released next week.

Continued below.

Erykah was inspired to record after hearing Drake make “a cute song,” and her rework of the Toronto star’s summer smash quickly ballooned into a full project. She won’t say who else she’ll be interpreting on But You Caint Use My Phone, but she does say we should expect “the usual suspects” to be involved. Yes, by the way, Drake really did come over for tea and relationship advice like he said on “Days in the East.” They’re great friends.

Later this week in Texas she debuts Live Nudity, her first-ever one-woman show, at Dallas’s Black Academy of Arts and Letters, where she first took to the stage as a youth. She's also hosting Centric and BET’s 2015 Soul Train Music Awards in November, an annual celebration of excellence in black music set this year to honor Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Jill Scott. The Soul Train Awards 2015 will air on Centric and BET Networks on November 29 at 8 PM EST.

Noisey: You’ve been very busy since your last album, but you haven’t released a lot of music. I’m curious: Have you been writing at all over the last five years or just sorta letting life happen?
Erykah Badu: A little bit of both. Mostly procrastinating. And within that I just kinda live and experience. I’m writing all the time, but recently I got the bug back. When it comes, it comes, and I can’t force it, but recently I got it back with “Hotline Bling” and all the other things I’ve been experimenting with.

A lot of people were excited to see your son get a credit on the “Hotline Bling” remix. Is he writing and recording a lot now?
All the time. He wrote his first song and got his first credit on one of Gwen Stefani’s albums. A song called “Bubble Pop Electric.” He’s always been a creative kind of kid. Very good with coming up with lyrics. He has impeccable taste in music. He’s very talented with picking up instruments. He has a few credits on my albums as well, New Amerykah Part One, specifically. He’s one of those talented people that I really respect and admire, and he happens to be my son.

What’s your take on the Drake and Meek Mill beef?
Loved it. That’s what hip-hop is about to me. I liked that. That’s the way we’re supposed to handle it! I encourage it.

D’angelo’s album finally came out! How’d you like Black Messiah?
I love it. I love the atmosphere of it. It feels rich. I didn’t know how much I missed his voice and his mark until I heard it. There are a few songs on that album that I play repeatedly just to live inside of it. It also gave me a little boost or a little spark.

There was some controversy over the summer about the Black Eyed Peas video for “Yesterday,” which looked a lot like your video for “Honey.” Did you ever hear from their camp?
No, and you know, it was very light... I hope it was light how I expressed myself because will.i.am is a very talented guy. We’re both Pisces, and we’ve done music together, so I hope he took it lightly. And I’m flattered.

You’re hosting the Soul Train Awards again next month. You done it before, right?
I hosted before with Heavy D and Patti LaBelle in 1998. It feels good to me as an artist to have an opportunity to be a part of that organization. I grew up living Soul Train. So it’s an amazing thing, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. I had an opportunity to become an associate producer for the show, so that means I’m getting a chance to help develop some of the ideas for the show, and I’m writing the comedy for it.

You gonna do some skits?
I might do some skits. Might have to do some skits. [Laughs.]

You also have a one-woman show premiering in Dallas later this week. You’ve done a good bit of acting before and plenty of singing. But are you nervous to be by yourself doing theater like that again?
I’m actually from the theater. I grew up doing theater and majored in theater in college at Grambling State in Louisiana, and I’ve been a part of the theater all my life. It’s been a big part of my career, even as a stage performer. I’ve traveled eight months out of the year for the past 18 years, and the stage is my main place, but being by myself there... I don’t know why that stresses me out, but it does. I’m sure that nervous energy will turn into something really honest that I’ll end up sharing. But I don’t know what’ll happen, so we’ll see. The show is improv.

The whole thing is improv?
I have a format, kind of, but I haven’t really had time to write a 60-minute show, so we just have to see what happens.

If it goes well are you planning on taking it beyond Dallas?
Yeah. I wanted to test it out here first, where I was really comfy in a theater that I grew up in, in Dallas alongside my godmother Gwen Hargrove and my uncle Curtis King of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. It’s a theater in Dallas that’s provided art and entertainment for over 30 years. And I’ve been a part of that legacy and just wanted to start there. I felt like I would be less intimidated, but... it didn’t work. So I just have to take it with me and see what happens.

You’ve done a lot of pushing the dial on hip-hop and R&B and changing the temperature of the music with your work. Who do you see in the new generation that has that kind of impact? What young ones are you listening to?
There’s a lot of stuff. I love Drake because he’s ever-evolving. He keeps forecasting what will happen. He pays attention to what’s going on and then he embodies it. I love Young Thug. He kinda does the same thing. I love Wolf Gang. The whole Tyler, the Creator camp. What they’re doing in music as a whole with Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt and the Internet... Syd the Kid. The whole movement is awesome.

They’re a whole entertainment corps. They’re very active in social media and even have a show on Adult Swim. Instead of creating music, they have created a movement, and I really admire that kind of thing because I think that’s what this generation is really going to be noted for. Pushing boundaries and recreating the things that we experimented with and taking them to a higher level. The fearlessness is awesome.

Do you see a lot of yourself and the Soulquarians in the Odd Future movement?
Well, yeah. The movement is what it’s all about. A lot of those things are created up out of necessity. Because we need to coagulate together. We need to talk together and move together. That’s how a lot of the frequencies are born. Up out of socializing and sharing the same likes and dislikes and ideas. And yeah, I see that. That’s how we formed our family. Just kinda liking the same thing and being one of those crews that were relentless in creating new music and being honest. I see that.

What do you make of the new black protest movement and Black Lives Matter?
I think it’s necessary. The world creates things up out of prayers that people pray and have. Things begin to move accordingly to how we all collectively think. When you see collectives moving on something you know that there’s going to be some kind of mass migration to a higher place, and I see that in the world as a whole, not just in America. I see it all over the globe. People are organizing and fusing together to make change, and it’s inspiring. I think it’s part of the natural order of things. We’re evolving, and what helps us evolve is social media. Social media is social evolution. It’s sparking a great change.

Craig Jenkins picks his friends like he picks his fruit. Follow him on Twitter.

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