Erykah Badu hasn't released a proper album since 2010. She hasn't headlined a Twin Cities concert since 2001. That didn't stop her from presenting her biggest local show yet Wednesday night at the Armory in Minneapolis.
She is, after all, the high priestess of neo-soul. She is so highly regarded that she was invited to last month's Met Gala. (Google her bedazzlingly black Thom Browne ensemble.) Rihanna asked Badu to model at the Savage X Fenty fashion show in September. And Sonos Radio asked her to curate her own channel starting this fall.
Like David Bowie and Prince before her, and Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe after her, Badu is one of pop music's marvelous visionaries. She comes with a well contemplated philosophy and an evolved concept for the sound, messages and visuals of her art.
At the Armory, Badu dressed her musicians and singers in white hazmat suits and herself in a shimmering coat of many-colored streamers and a black-and-white ball cap. As the night wore on, she took off layers to reveal a silver jacket and pants, a couple of custom T-shirts and hair down to her derriere.
Even without the colorful couture and artful laser lights, Badu was a mesmerizing presence. She had the magnetic aura of a guru, with arm gestures out of a modern-dance piece and moves that shouted "watch me 'cause I don't know what I'm going to do next but you'll be fascinated." She might pirouette in circles, bat an electric drum with her hand, or sit on a riser and listen to her backup singers improvise a verse (which brought big smiles to her face).
Similarly, you never know what's going to come out of her mouth: a one-on-one convo with a dude in the front row because she liked his energy; an entreaty to light up a joint, or a piercing soprano held-note that's not heard on her records. And I swear in her kiss-off hit "Tyrone," she inserted some "mow mow's" a la the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird," the Minneapolis smash from 1963.
Badu called some audibles in her set, scatting horn-like sounds and boogieing to "Don't Stop the Music," the old Yarbrough and Peoples disco-era hit.
"Badubotron live," as she called her show, began with her band jamming for 15 minutes. Then she took the stage, a vision in rainbow streamers welcoming 3,800 stylin' fans with "Hello," her jazzy reimagining of Todd Rundgren's 1973 pop hit "Hello, It's Me."
Badu, 50, rattled off a bevy of her nicknames (including Sara Bellum, Mary Magnum and Fat Belly Bella) and explained some of her philosophies (mind your business, each to his own, etc.). A true original, she has a language and style all her own.
Early on, she explored tunes from her Grammy-winning 1997 debut, "Baduizm," including the hits "On & On" and "Appletree." She offered five selections from her 2015 mixtape, "But You Caint Use My Phone," some of which featured her voice manipulated electronically.
Despite an occasional taste for electronic drums, Badu favors an organic sound that mixes jazz, hip-hop and soul, showcasing her elastically jazzy, Billie Holiday-evoking voice. That voice sparkled Wednesday on an extended version of "Otherside of the Game" from "Baduizm."
The 90-minute performance had the free-flowing spirit if not the intimacy of her 2020 "Quarantine Concert Series: Apocalypse, Live From Badubotron," streamed from her Dallas home as she moved into different rooms and changed into different outfits. It's hard to experience intimacy in the spacious Armory even with chairs on the floor.
Nonetheless, this Twin Cities appearance was infinitely more satisfying than Badu's too brief, underwhelming set at the 2018 Soundset festival at the State Fairgrounds. Let's hope we don't have to wait another 20 years for this neo-soul legend to headline here again.
Twitter: @JonBream 612-673-1719