February 26, 1971
Dallas, Texas, United States
Actor, Singer, Acting teacher, Dance instructor, Waitress
Erykah Badu occupied a sweet spot between jazz, traditional soul and hip-hop. Born Erica Wright, she grew up in Dallas and was a show business child, studying voice and dance at the Dallas Theater Center well before adolescence; then moved on to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. After dropping out of college she began recording demos, one of which got to Kedar Massenburg who was then the president of Motown. He became her manager and landed her a duet with another of his clients, D'Angelo, and ultimately signed her to his own Kedar label. Her first album, 1997's Baduizm, was an immediate hit and a cornerstone of the neo-soul genre. Though the production was modern, her voice drew comparisons to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. It spawned three hit singles ("on & On," "Next Lifetime" and "Otherside of the Game") and won the 1998 Grammy for Best R&B album. Shethen made the unconventional move of releasing a live album as the followup and Live did just as well commercially, including covers of Chaka Khan and Roy Ayers. She recorded it while pregnant and timed its release to coincide with the birth of her son Seven, whose father was Andre 3000 of OutKast. After taking a maternity break she released Mama's Gun, her first for Motown proper, which toned down her impressionistic lyrics for a more direct approach while upping the jazz influence, notably on the ten-minute finale "Green Eyes." This continued on 2003's Worldwide Underground, which allowed for more instrumental stretching-out. Following another hiatus, she returned in 2008 with New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), after apparently scrapping a couple albums' worth of recordings made on her home computer. This was followed two years later by New Amerykah Part 2 (Return of the Ankh). Both albums return sampling and electronics to the mix; the first was her most political album while the second introduces sci-fi themes. It's also notable for the single "Window Seat" whose video led to her being arrested while filming a nude scene at the spot where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Her only other release in the 2010s was But You Can't Use My Phone-- officially a mixtape, though it became an aboveground Motown release. A set of telephone-themed songs, it featured covers of Ray Parker Jr's "Mr. Telephone Man" and surprise collaborations with Pharrell Williams and Todd Rundgren.