On & On: Erykah Badu's Brilliance Enters the Digital Age

From "Tyrone" to "Hotline Bling," Badu's laying down the blueprint for staying relevant and true to self.

The year is 1997, Erykah Badu is singing before a studio audience. This isn’t a regular performance, this isn’t just another tour date, this in-concert recording is for her Live album—a follow-up to the acclaimed debut Baduizm that was released months prior. Reviews have been raving about the songstress, proclaiming that this newcomer is putting the soul in Neo-Soul. She has promise, the kind of talent journalists are comparing to the phenomenal Billy Holiday. To hear her sing is to hear the voice of tomorrow. Before testing out a never before heard single, Erykah has a moment of humorous sincerity with the crowd, “Keep in mind, I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit so yall be nice about it.” Laughter and applause fill the studio, a sound that would continue throughout the song, the sensitive artist had nothing to worry about—“Tyrone” was destined to be a hit.

It’s been almost 20 years since Erykah sung about the former love whose unbearably trifling behavior was the catalyst for their ruined relationship. Before Adele was rolling in the dark depths of heartbreak, Badu was setting fire to the dirty laundry that was left behind and the flame drew people in like spectators to a schoolyard brawl. The song didn’t come from a place of scorn but a whimsical breakdown of what lead to their breakup. Listening to the lyrics, it feels both aged and ageless.

You can go to any era in the past and find a woman disgruntled with a man for always needing to borrow money but never having any to give, a woman fed up with being around your friends in public and only allowed alone time in bed. These are common issues that have plagued courting since the days of Adam and Eve. It’s when she mentions him not being able to use her phone that takes me back to 1997. I can almost imagine her unnamed partner dragging a box of his belongings to the nearest corner while digging for a quarter to call Tyrone on the payphone. '97 Tyrone would get collect calls from pay phones and cryptic messages from beepers, compare that to the Tyrone of today, the one who lives in the age of cellphones and social media. Tyrone wouldn’t get a phone call but would watch as your girlfriend embarrassingly kicks you out into an Uber via Snapchat. Then Tyrone would laugh as Twitter turns the ordeal into a meme, his friend’s face being replaced by the infamous crying Michael Jordan. It was a different time, a different era, a lot can change in two decades.

A lot did change, but Erykah Badu has been here for all the bright mornings and dark nights. Aged and ageless might be the perfect way to describe how she has survived all these years in the music industry without a single metaphorical or literal wrinkle. There have always been myths that she’s magical, her ability to survive in this heartless game might be proof enough. Last year when it was announced that Erykah Badu would be releasing a brand new mixtape inspired by Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and themed around our relationship to telephones and connection, “Tyrone” immediately came to mind. I was intrigued that she would be tackling phones as a concept, especially since she watched how phones have evolved over time. Especially since Drake was cited as an influence, phones and connection are what assisted in making his 2015 a prosperous year. He proved himself to be the king of social media, building a throne on the internet and a crown comprised of smartphones.



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While social media may seem like a kingdom strictly run by the youth, the wise and creative elders that can age with the time are also able to build their own castles. When you really think about it, Erykah is a great example, she may be older but she isn’t a fossil from the past that can only be admired in museums. She has always been the kind of woman and artist that is ever-evolving, it’s no surprise she is able to adapt to this ever-changing era. Even when there was a lack of new music during the five-year-hiatus, her presence online has been strong, she has used Twitter, Vine, and Periscope to stay plugged in. She is by far one of the most interesting and entertaining celebrities you can follow on any medium when music was scarce she gave us humor and wisdom to hold us over. With this new mixtape, the once proclaimed analog girl seemed to be prepared to completely immerses herself in the digital era.  

What But You Caint Use My Phone displays is how well Erykah can enter a new age without losing her old flavor. It’s like listening to a modern sound created by using artifacts from yesteryears. That’s the beauty of this project, the old becomes new again. Songs from Usher, Todd Rundgren, Uncle Jamm’s Army, and even Badu herself are sampled and reprised in ways where they’re allowed to be as youthful as the day of their initial release. Reborn after years of slumbering away in record shops and in 6-disc CD players. There’s this cosmic balance of past and present that could only be accomplished by an artist that is both seasoned and forward-looking.

I think it’s symbolic that all the production is handled by young producer Zach Witness. Badu discovered him on Soundcloud after hearing a remix that he did of her classic “On & On,” the two would record the entire mixtape in 11 days at Zach’s home. Thier chemistry is another example of how this tape is bound by the coexistence of youth and seniors making magic together. Even the features, the fairly unknown ItsRoutine and the evasive old bull Andre3000, further prove the mixtape is able to find a stability by bringing together the young and old. It reminds me of when The Flintstones and The Jetsons had a crossover special, Fred and George, Wilma and Betty, Astro and Dino, all together, the collision of two completely separate time periods for our entertainment.

The song “Phone Down” is one that truly grabbed my ear. Erykah sings in a playful, confident tone about how she is able to make her company put his phone down. This is a song completely set in the present, where vying for attention from a companion can be a battle between you and the never-ending notifications. While there is nothing complex about the lyrics, you truly feel this isn’t something she could’ve sung years ago. It’s true for this generation of teens and adults who can’t look away. It’s strange, realizing that we are becoming inseparable from our phones that it’s an accomplishment to make someone abandon theirs. Erykah sings with such sureness but how many of us can say the same? I’m impressed by how connected she is to the times to relay such a simple yet honest feeling. A feeling that she didn’t deal with all those years ago when she denied her old flame a chance to use her phone.

It’s expected for parents and elders to be out of touch or try too hard to be hip but with Erykah, it’s natural evolution. She simply grows with the times without trying to be of the times and that’s the best way to age for any artist, the only way a true artist can age. 

By Yoh, aka SkinnyBellyYoh, aka @Yoh31



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