Review: Erykah Badu delivers a charged, intense performance

In more ways than one, R&B singer Erykah Badu connected generations of music fans at the Shrine Expo Hall on Tuesday night. Tapping surging bassist and producer Thundercat to open the night as well as play bass during her set, she impressed fans of all ages and put on a performance that will not easily be forgotten.

Badu’s signature eccentrism was on full display throughout the evening, and it was clear from the outset that the program would run on her own time. The band initially summoned her appearance with an extended medley of “Rim Shot” from her debut album Baduizm into “Hello” off her newest release But You Caint Use My Phone and the R&B pioneer slowly crept her way onto the stage, captivating the audience with her regal stage presence as they loudly voiced their approval.

Dressed in a bright pink sweatshirt and gray sweatpants underneath a tweed pinstripe coat, Badu’s outfit could have just as easily been the first option that fell out of the wardrobe as it could have been carefully put together. Accentuated with a white top hat and matching sleeves bearing colorful patterns in a quilted design, she gave the audience plenty of time to appreciate her attire as she took a bow in the middle of her entrance, before fumbling around on the beat machine next to her center-stage stool and finally opening her mouth to sing.

Badu’s vocals were simply piercing in a live setting, and she often dominated the soundscape as she belted out the notes. Singing “Out My Mind, Just in Time” from under a shimmering pyramid of lasers, her voice filled the arena along with the band’s impressive instrumentation, making for one of the highlights of the night.

Badu visited the Shrine to do more than just sing, however, taking the time to preach peace and unity while also enlightening the crowd with incredible stories of her career. While taking a break from the music to highlight Thundercat’s musical prowess and timeline their long history of working together, she revealed that the two briefly dated while on tour several years ago, before boasting to the delighted crowd how her love paved the way for his success as a musician.

Badu is known for her quirky signature style along with her piercing vocals and experimental sound. Photo courtesy of Steve Rose.

Thundercat’s set, which preceded Badu’s, was filled with intricate jam sessions, all performed at full volume with no restraint. The sound system in the Shrine, while well-equipped for the booming rap concerts that often take place in the venue, was initially ill-equipped for his live instrumentation, making it somewhat of a challenge for fans to find the groove. Sound quality did eventually improve toward the end, in time for him to close out his set with an impressive rendition of “Them Changes” that had every head in the crowd bobbing excitedly. Weaving cuts from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly that he produced with some of his own classic songs like “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” Thundercat’s soothing falsetto permeated the entire performance and created an enjoyable experience, despite the sound issues.

For Badu, however, the night was something of a celebration, taking place the day after her landmark debut Baduizm’s 21st anniversary.

“Baduizm was for the ’90s babies,” Badu expressed at one point between songs, drawing cheers from younger members of the audience. She embraced the many newcomers who were seeing her in a live setting for the first time, announcing that she’d been waiting for them to “grow up” so that she could truly share with the next generation.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity to connect with the youth, the singer played plenty of material from Baduizm, the highlight being her jazzy rendition of “On & On” early in the evening. “Next Lifetime” and “Appletree” were also standouts, both of which put smiles on faces the moment the initial note was struck.

Badu didn’t forget the rest of her fans, however, covering old-school hits such as “Don’t Stop the Music” by Yarbrough & Peoples. The futuristic, funk-infused production meshed well with the celestial atmosphere the singer created throughout the night, from her robotic yet cultural outfit to her impressive stage design.

At times, the experimentalism teetered on the edge of venturing too far into the beyond, such as her decision to decelerate the groove on “Window Seat” to a near standstill where even the 808’s seemed frozen in time. Always aware of when she was on the verge of losing her audience, however, Badu never failed to whip the band back into action the instant that all appeared lost, bringing the audience back to reality. It wouldn’t be a true Erykah Badu experience without a few moments of uncertainty, but by the time it was all said and done, her superior artistry reigned supreme.