Erykah Badu

Many of the best black popular musicians consciously attempt to maintain a healthy cynicism toward mainstream values and dreams of upward mobility. Since the mid-1990s Dionne Farris, Des'ree, Carleen Anderson, Tony Rich, and Joi all made that attempt, but for their trouble they were ignored by the core black audience that might have once supported each of them.

Over the last two or so years artists from a new school of art-soul have produced music that resonates in both the black and white districts of bohemia and the 'hood. Maxwell and D'Angelo get most of the credit, but Erykah Badu's responsible for the most compelling music. The guys were avatars of lust and desire, but on last year's Baduizm the Texas vocalist wrote and sung eloquent songs about personal strength (“On & On”), family legacies (“Apple Tree”), and relationship politics (“Other Side of the Game”). The breadth of the record translated to commercial success: Baduizm peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 and, as of this writing, has remained on that list for more than 40 weeks.

Live — her second CD in 10 months — may arouse skeptics: It looks like an idle attempt to cash in on her sudden renown. It may indeed be that, but there's too much substance here to casually dismiss it. First of all, short of MTV Unplugged recordings, few popular black artists make live discs anymore, for a lot of reasons. (Even relatively young artists like Aaliyah have complained that replicating aspects from their videos onstage drains spontaneity from their shows.) Second, Badu's material grew considerably during the year she spent on the road before recording. The most noticeable difference is how pregnancy has given her voice a maple-y, Dinah Washington character, replacing the pungent qualities that earned her comparisons to Billie Holiday. Also Badu's singing is more opaque and expressive, with unrestrained wails on “Other Side of the Game” and the cover of Chaka Kahn's “Stay.”

The loose vibe on the recording works well with Badu's style; lyrically she's firm, but not a dogmatist. The most assertive track — “Tyrone,” an eviction notice for a conniving boyfriend — is done here with what seem like impromptu sing-alongs from some women who sound like they relate. During “Next Lifetime” the band misses a cue, but it's no big deal: Flawless studio sound is not the objective here. Instead, Badu wants to create a feel. But over the six songs that appeared on her debut, four covers, and bits of stage chatter wherein she explains her mystic beliefs, everything is so laid-back that it's a surprise Badu didn't throw in a stick of incense. The songs are thick enough to confirm the impression that Badu is a serious artist, but as a whole the live record lacks the staggering sense of wonder found on her debut.

Live is better viewed as a companion disc to Baduizm rather than the next chapter in the Badu story. That installment will come with her next recording, which Badu already is hinting will focus on contemporary black motherhood, a topic ripe for exploration. And perhaps by that time, the bridge that she helped build will be more frequently traveled.

— Martin Johnson

Paul Robeson
The Peace Arch Concerts
(Folk Era)

Baby boomers nurtured on the still-strong flow of American socialism that followed World War II — the so-called Red Diaper Babies — likely retain childhood memories of recordings of the gorgeous bass voice of African-American Paul Robeson, who sang about global peace and solidarity, civil rights, and the dignity of labor. This generation might also recall something of the Cold War repression of leftist activity that plagued their parents and cost Robeson, a champion of civil rights and advocate of befriending the Soviets, his passport and opportunities to tour the States. These difficulties led the singer — an All-American football player, Phi Beta Kappa scholar, and one of the 10 top-paid concertizers in the world — to accept an invitation in 1952 to sing, accompanied on piano, from a flatbed truck parked in British Columbia, a foot from the Washington state border. The rank and file of the Mine, Mill and Smelters Workers' Union, which hosted this and several annual repeats, were rewarded with many of their favorite labor songs, most memorably “Joe Hill,” a beautifully lyrical account of an inspirational posthumous visit from a wrongfully executed miner.

The Peace Arch Concerts preserves the first two of these performances. Between the infectious cheers and the applause of the tens of thousands assembled on either side of the border, there are black spirituals and work songs, international folk songs, and musical pleas for solidarity, like “Song of the Four Rivers” and an anthem that features lyrics set to “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Despite the limitations of the rough tape-recording technology, Robeson's voice and persona emerge with the smoothness and elegance of finished mahogany and the strength of a towering tree trunk. Robeson's voice was an opera-quality basso; perhaps his most acclaimed performance was in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, though he's probably best known for his on-screen rendition of “Ol' Man River” (included here) in Showboat. (The song was written specifically for him by Jerome Kern.) His dramatic range and insight likewise bring depth to “No More Auction Block” and “Jacob's Ladder.”

With the roar of the crowds and the comments of the labor hosts, this album serves equally as historical record and testimony to a fine artist whose 100th birthday will be celebrated this April. Robeson's 12-minute speech that concludes the record is so full of heart and high energy that it may reawaken a too-comfortable generation and their jaded seniors to a source of hope and political consciousness, considered dangerous in a much grimmer time.

— Jeff Kaliss

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