An overrated debut can cast a long shadow across an artist's career. Operating on the "fool me twice, shame on me" principle, critics and fans get grudging with their praise once they realize they even slightly overvalued the first shot. Maybe that's the situation facing Erykah Badu--I can't think of another reason the adventurous Worldwide Underground (Motown), a 50-minute disc she called an EP, was greeted with yawns last year when it was greeted at all. On her first release, 1997's Baduizm, the singer filtered Billie Holiday's mannerisms through a 70s postsoul sensibility and couched the result in arrangements best described as "coffeehouse ambient." In its moodier moments Baduizm seemed the rare Quiet Storm album that promised an eventual cloudburst, but mostly it sort of hung in the air like incense. Live was a fairly perfunctory follow-up, but "Tyrone," a snappy eviction notice to a deadbeat lover, marked a new direction for Badu that she followed on her 2000 album, Mama's Gun. The new Badu had a sharp political sensibility ("2000 A.D." eulogized Amadou Diallo), and the way she used her sex appeal was subtler and wittier. Worldwide Underground isn't quite as strong as Mama's Gun, but Badu is still relying on her brain as much as her larynx, and tracks like the sultry "Back in the Day," the ominous "Danger," and a heady remix of the single "Love of My Life"--featuring a guest roster of gifted, underutilized women singers and rappers--prove that she's way ahead of where she started. Floetry opens. Saturday, February 28, 7 PM, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress; 312-922-2110 or 312-902-1500.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Crump.