Atop the long list of things that amaze me about Erykah Badu is how much she can get away with. I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm kinda obsessed with the lengths people are going to for a hit these days. And so it's incredible to me that an R&B artist who's more or less a household name and certainly on a major lable was able to get something as complex, challenging, political and single-free as New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) past the suits that hold her career in their bank accounts.
And so, it was with a slackjaw that I watched her perform for about two hours Friday at Radio City Music Hall. With a band so big it felt like a nation of millions propping her up, she ran through most of her latest disc, though missing from the set list were "My Hump" and the Dilla eulogy "Telephone" (fair enough, since they're kinda downers) and the set's first single "Honey" (which could be considered a downer in its own way, since the record company more or less forced it on to give radio something to play). If skipping over the most recognizable song of hers in recent memory seemed audacious, her non-stop barrage of album cuts felt like a revolution. Not that anyone cared either way -- Mama's Gun's "Orange Moon," "Time's a Wastin'" and a Soul Sonic Force-ful revamp of Baduizm's "Appletree" were met with the kind of rapturous sing-a-long response that had me just checking Wikipedia to make sure I wasn't going senile and that these were never officially released to radio.
Her performance of another one of those beloved non-singles, the 10-minute suite "Green Eyes," is excerpted in the video below. Though she performed it during the encore, it opens the clip -- I wanted to show immediately just how out there she went. With the aid of two blow-up exercise balls, she danced interpretively for the entire 10 minutes, banners waving in the background. It was part Debbie Allen, part You and Me, Kid and part yogurt commercial. It pleased me so, and it exemplified why Erykah gets away with so much: her kooky charm saves her every time. Her banter with the audience was entirely hilarious. She did this thing when she sang "Tyrone," wherein she sang the "my" in the last line ("...But you can't use my phone") over and over to prolong the song. At one point, she sang a bunch of "my"s to the tune of "Wipeout" while feverishly doing the Watusi (at least, I think that's what it was). When she was finally done the song she reported, "Someone said, 'Work, bitch!' Uh, thank you?" Similarly, she kicked off a five-minute closing speech in which she thanked the audience for basically letting her do what she does, by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to let you know something: this hat itches."
It was thrilling to watch her command the stage the way she did: lest you forget that she's a band leader, she's constantly giving her accompaniment cues (a quick, flat "Wait.") to drop out and let her go acapella. Between songs, she played snippets of old soul songs I should have recognized (but didn't) and Audio Two's "Top Billin'." I got the feeling she just wanted to hear them, as you do. Oh, and she also had this seemingly random guy and his girlfriend out on stage, per his request. He proposed in front of all of us. It was suitably warm and fuzzy and weird.
She commanded the audience, too, telling us to sing along to the "Yes siree"s in "Soldier," which was not just a highlight of the night, but a highlight of my concert-going life. I can't even express how moving it was to hear live and saluting those who share her determined outrage ("To my folks on the picket line / Don't stop till you change their minds / I got love for my folks / Baptized when the levy broke..."). I captured the first part of the song (it's it the video below), but not that most moving part. It's just as well - my shitty little camera was no match for the power in that room, anyway.