Erykah Badu Summons Lil Wayne, Twitter Army For New Album
It's a cosmic bummer that the syrup-soaked rapper and the future-funk diva hadn't thought to pair up before Badu's new single, "Jump in the Air." Originally a cut from her upcoming "New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh" album, the duo's collaboration leaked and was subsequently released as a Web-only track, accompanied by one acid trip of a music video, in which Wayne's and Badu's heads float and multiply. (Badu describes it as an "Erykahleidoscope.") Wayne raps about going "nuts like a danish" and vanishing into thin air while Badu howls and ululates, beckoning the listener to "come fly with us" over a sample of Parliament Funkadelic's "Hydraulic Pump." Viral music videos don't get any weirder -- or really, more genius -- than this.
Though Badu has an executive assistant and tour manager, she's never had a manager, and she does everything from conceptualize and direct her videos to style her outfits and handwrite her albums' thank-you notes.
"She's adept in the digital realm, clear about her imaging and video presentation and able to come with the music, with the strategic plan, with the look," says Sylvia Rhone, who describes "Part Two" as "vintage Erykah."
Artists who keep this level of control are often described as high maintenance, but Badu says, "It's not going to stop me from doing what I do. It doesn't worry me to the point of 'Should I?' There's nothing freaky about controlling your image or your art, especially if you have the understanding and talent to do it."
"Erykah is crazy like a fox, but she knows what she's doing," "Window Seat" producer Poyser says. "The road that she takes is not the normal road that people walk down to get from A to Z. But she always gets to where she's going."
Threes aside, it's two Ts that keep the Erykah Badu machine pressing on these days: Twitter and touring. All announcements surrounding "Part Two" come directly from her Twitter account, which, according to the label, has averaged an increase of 15,000 followers per week since the (((333))) campaign started. "We don't want anyone else to scoop her on her own content," Jernigan says.
Badu was a devout Twitter user long before the Ashton Kutcher/CNN race to 1 million followers, and she gained notoriety for taking the concept of oversharing to a new level by live-tweeting giving birth. "Home birth, no painkillers, about five hours, she was a little past due date, but I didn't mind waiting," one of her posts read. Electronica partook as well, tweeting, "I see the head, full of hair."
"I got so close to the little Twitter community that it was important to me they knew what was happening," Badu says. "We laugh and we talk and we cry ...and it's never like, 'This is the superstar and these are the fans.' It makes me feel less like someone put on a pedestal and more like a human being."
At her live shows, which Badu describes as "another form of therapy" like Twitter, she tries to create the same feeling of connectedness. "I don't drink or smoke or take any kind of drugs, so I'm almost like the lightweight mad bitch walking around," she says. "But what those things do for other people is what performing live does for me. It's the love of my life, and it's what I do best."
Cara Lewis, a senior VP at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, cites everything from Badu's "eclectic wardrobe" to her "eccentric vocal stylings" as the keys to her draw as a live act. In 2008 Badu grossed $2.6 million from touring and $1.2 million in 2009, according to Billboard Boxscore (see chart, below), and she plans to continue touring this summer, with her own headlining dates as well as on the revived Lilith Fair festival. Like "Part Two," Lilith will bring Badu back to the spirit of her early days: The first time she played its main stage was in 1998, a year after "Baduizm" dropped.
"I remember my life at that point and how stress-free it was," Badu says. "I was so confident, inspired and fresh. There were no expectations and there was nothing to top. I didn't know the rules. I didn't care for them -- and that's how I feel right now."