A Look at Erykah Badu’s Debut Album, “Baduizm”, — 20 Years Later

In 1997, Microsoft became the biggest company in the world, The Titanic came out in theaters, Mike Tyson fought Evander Hollyfield, Notorious B.I.G. was killed, Spice Girl pandemonium was at an all-time high, Puff Daddy dropped his debut album, and Aaliyah was one year into her ascension as the princess of R&B. Somewhere in between the unforgiving formation of modern pop culture, girl groups, and the humble beginnings of the digital era, Erykah Badu, a 25-year old Black woman from Dallas, Texas, had made her neo-soul debut, Baduizm.

Born as “Erica Abi Wright”, the singer merged her original name with her moniker, using the Egyptian term “kah” (which means “inner self”) at the end of her first name and adding on “Badu” last, which represented the singer’s favorite jazz-riff scat. In her teenage years, Badu attended a performing and visual arts high school in Dallas, where she would excel in song and dance, while also doubling as “DJ Apples” at a local radio station. Badu then moved on to attend Grambling State University, a historically Black college in Louisiana, where she majored in theater and minored in quantum physics. She eventually left school to pursue music back in Dallas, with her demo crossing paths with Kedar Massenberg of Kedar Entertainment (which would later get absorbed by Universal Motown). Badu was matched with D’Angelo at the time, who was also managed by Massenberg, to record “Your Precious Love” in 1996, a remake of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1967 hit. However, a year later she’d take the music industry by storm, with Baduizm, a Grammy award-winning album without any features, credited with igniting the neo-soul movement to follow.

Led by tracks like “On & On”, “Appletree”, “Next Lifetime”, and “Other Side of The Game”, Baduizm was a vehicle for self-expression and a destination point for consciousness, as Badu carefully invited listeners into her world, head-space, and way of life. In addition to detailing the complexities of relationship scenarios, Badu also wanted to gift listeners who sought out connectivity to their roots, with music about self-knowledge and person-hood. Throughout the album, she unapologetically focused on Black origins, Black womanhood, and resistance to social norms.

“Baduizm is an expression of me and the way I feel. Badu is my last name. Izm is well should get you high and Baduizm are the things that get me high. Lighting a candle, loving life, knowing myself, knowing the creator, loving them both, lighting incents, I’m building bridges, understanding, destroying bridges, overstanding, I’m using my melanin, using my power to get to where I need to go and to do the creator’s work. That’s what I’m here for and I’m still fly.” (Erykah Badu, Planet Groove, 1997)

Coasting along the beat to “On & On”, Badu sings, “If we were made in his image then call us by our names / Most intellects do not believe in god but they fear us just the same.” Referring to the Nation of Gods and Earths theology from the Five-Percent nation, Badu challenges listeners throughout “On & On” to reject cliche images of the Black community, and return back to the idea that Black men and women were made in the divine image of God. In the video for “On & On”, she trades in her outfit as a maid for a gele headress, transcending the narratives that were handed to her by society and reinserting her position as a queen. Vastly sectioning herself off from the more empty feel-good singular jams of R&B at the time, Badu’s debut was unorthodox, as she created a unique space that was inherently Black and inherently female. Her head wraps, personal style, and demeanor were the exact opposite of how the media depicted Black women, making her debut revolutionary.

“I feel like this is where I need to be right now because music is kind of sick… it’s going through a rebirthing process and I find myself being one of the midwives aiding in that rebirthing process.” (E. Badu, Planet Groove, 1997)

While traditional R&B had dominated much of the 90’s, Baduizm made the case that neo-soul could capture hearts just as vehemently as Dru Hill, SWV, or En Vogue. In doing so, she opened doors for acts such as Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, and Floetry, who all became neo-soul mainstays and broke into pop-driven R&B markets without compromising their lyrics, instrumentation, or narratives. When it came to sound, Baduizm was a confident melting pot of jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and soul, with plenty of drum influence stemming from Badu’s exploration into her African heritage at the time. Additionally, while R&B and hip-hop had been paired together in the 90’s through groups like En Vogue and Jodeci, Badu took it upon herself to pair soul with hip-hop alternatively, as seen on the song “Appletree” which capitalizes on rap’s mantra recipe and drums that A Tribe Called Quest would’ve used.

The love narratives on Baduizm were also exceptional and anything but basic. Asking “who gave you permission to rearrange me” on “Certainly” and considering the idea of forever on “4 Leaf Clover”, Badu was an active player and thinker in love, with an element of freedom carved into her relationship narratives. She doesn’t rely on obvious catchy hook construction to describe her love life, but instead utilizes love’s own delicate and complex nuances to route her lyrics. As an album, Baduizm rejected the idea of ownership in love, which naturally infiltrated new perspectives on how to approach love stories in the R&B landscape from both men and women.

When we consider the success of a modern album like Solange’s A Seat At The Table, it’s not hard to recognize that Erykah Badu planted the seed for albums like these to not only exist, but also flourish. Whether you were a fan of Baduizm, or more enthused by Mama’s Gun or Worldwide Underground, Badu’s fearless self-expression and ability to ascend as a thought leader in her music, while becoming a mainstream success, gave way to a new generation of artists across genres. Many of today’s Erykah Badu fans became Baduizm aficionados largely thanks to their parents, soul and R&B radio stations, or as many of us do, simply diving into her catalogue randomly and never leaving. We asked a few of our favorite emerging artists to share their sentiments on the original “analog girl in a digital world” below as we reflect on the 20th anniversary of Baduizm.

Erykah Badu on 8/10/97 in Chicago, Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

“Many black legends were missing in my childhood, but for me, I found an identity in discovering music that moved me in a way nothing had before. Baduizm was certainly one of those albums. Erykah has made a genre of her own (with tracks like Apple Tree & Next Lifetime). Her voice birthed so many of us, the depth of it balanced delicately with her devotion to teaching us about ourselves through love. Erykah is the queen of not taking anyone’s shit without bothering to apologize for it. & because of that, she’s paved a way for us to go On & On to find our own voices.  Ultimately she taught me that I don’t have to believe everything I think &  if my rim shot gets blocked,  I can still make the most of everything I have to offer.”Jean Deaux

“She was our generation’s Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Anita Baker. She was the queen of soul. And being a queen, she was a leader for those who were eclectic, eccentric, outkasted, just plain different. She made us feel like we had a place in the world.”Duckwrth 

“I didn’t understand the importance of Erykah’s music until I grew up which was only a couple of years ago. With such an amazing voice and flow you can tell through her music that she’s fearless. That’s so important in music and self-expression. She inspires artists like myself to be myself unapologetically. I got to braid her hair recently and she is everything you could imagine and more. Genuine, nurturing, funny, kind, and most of all real. That woman is truly amazing.”Lorine Chia

“As a person who has ever listened to music, it’s nearly impossible to talk about the rise of neo-soul without mentioning Erykah Badu. She is, without a doubt, a pioneer of the movement. She’s the master of longevity and the perfect example of being able to create on a spectrum. The nickname Muva does her justice, as she’s helped birth an entire generation of artists.” – Rayana Jay

“I think of Badu as my musical mother and my soul sister. She laid the foundation of “Neo-Soul” and taught me how to stay true to myself and my art. I remember hearing Baduizm play in the background on Saturday mornings while my mom and I cleaned the house. I was only 7, but the seed was planted. Badu showed me that it was okay not to be a pin-up girl, and that I could just be artsy Iman. Her songwriting on Baduizm holds secrets that I am still revealing today. Erykah Badu is a true inspiration of artistic expression. My art would not be the same without her.”Iman Europe

“She taught me how to take groovy production and simple concepts of love and life and transcend them past surface levels, while giving you a cohesive song at the same time. She’s the godmother of the soulful generation.”Elujay

Baduizm is one of those albums that I have memorized front to back. It was the soundtrack to the grown up parties my parents would throw or take me to where they would get loaded and just play that album over and over again. When you dissect the music you got: Samples, Fender Rhodes, Bass, Drums (Drum Programming), Erykah. Baduizm is just so digestible sonically. Before I could begin to formally articulate it, I had already absorbed the pocket of this album. And I reference it all the time.” 1-O.A.K.

20 years later, we only have one final thought to say to Erykah Badu: Thank you and Thank God. 

Evangeline Elder

Evangeline Elder is an Oakland-based writer who enjoys absolutely nothing. Just kidding (sort of).