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Erykah Badu Gives Rare Performance at 2014 Essence Music Festival [EXCLUSIVE]

Erykah Badu
Brad Barket, Getty Images

Even in an industry based on image and visibility, there are some so uncomfortable with the rigid expectations of entertainment that they disappear for a spell only to return to the scene and put on a performance like they never left. On Sunday evening (July 6), at the 2014 Essence Music Festival, neo-soul chanteuse Erykah Badu did just that.

Incidentally, Badu was introduced by Dave Chappelle — another artist who’s recently resurfaced after things got to be too much for him to handle a few years ago during his so-called peak of success. “I’m back!” Chappelle said sharply, fighting back a grin before the singer graced the stage. “I’m like a phoenix rising from the ashes. But right now, I’d like to bring out a good friend of mine. One of the only artists I’ve ever toured with.”

The lights dimmed and Badu quietly padded over to her mic stand at center stage, staring solemnly into the crowd. Concertgoers wailed in anticipation. Finally, after about a full 90 seconds, she cleared her throat in the way kids do for attention. The crowd went quiet, then all that could be heard was Badu’s full voice belting the opening lyrics of her 2010 single ‘20 Feet Tall.’ The live band boomed behind her, following every swivel of her vocals with precision. Even when she moved into her first hit ‘On & On’ without as much as a signal to her fine-tuned background singers, they were a seamless set to take in.

The self-proclaimed “b-girl” inserted a clever freestyle into the refrain of ‘On & On,’ showcasing her creative rap skills on the fly. Then, abruptly, Badu stopped the music and posed this question: ‘Where the f— are all the people?’

While the upper levels were just about filled to capacity, the floor seats were only half-full and the audience couldn’t tell whether or not the songstress was serious or if she was suffering from some sort of ego trip. Her fans knew better though and snickered as they acknowledged the type of set Badu would be having.

All evening, she cracked jokes, cussed and teased. She taunted festival attendees with extended versions of riffs and breakdowns as she danced around in a baggy, patterned jumpsuit, hi-top Vandals and her current signature, the huge brimmed hat. Badu had a hair scarf tied underneath the hat and iridescent feathers tucked under the scarf, nearly giving the impression that she had facial tattoos — or something.

After the second song, she rushed, “Thank you New Orleans! Good night!” Then walked off. Again, one could almost feel the majority of the crowd blink in confusion. Badu bounded back to the mic. ‘”Sit,” she said, dragging the word, incredulous that some hadn’t warmed up to her stage personality by then.

The ‘New Amerykah’ creator jumped into ‘I Choose You,’ ‘Next Lifetime’ and ‘Apple Tree’ even implementing her newest passion — playing around with sounds onstage by way of an MPC beat machine. Then she dove into ‘Love of My Life’ with A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Bonita Applebum’ incorporated into the beat. Her smooth vocals wrapped around each note making the songs sound even better than they had on wax.

And again, just as she had us wrapped around her finger and entranced, Badu made a move for stage left. “You know what? I’m tired of this s—. Good night New Orleans.” This time the crowd knew to play along and scream in protest. She came back to start ‘Tyrone,’ another fan favorite and stopped, squinting at the crowd. “I can’t see s—,” she said, even as the band repeated the ‘Tyrone’ refrain Badu went into an explanation..

“Look,” she started. “I came to a show this one time and asked people to stand up. They was like, ‘We already standing in this muhf—er!’”

Concertgoers howled as she continued, “I don’t even know how it happened. It was when I was 38. I just couldn’t see s— one day. So I went to the eye doctor and they gave me contacts. First thing I said when I went outside: ‘My car dirty….’” Again, the crowd hollered, laughing, waiting on either another impromptu joke or a song.

They didn’t have to wait long for Erykah to explain the motive behind her mischievous antics this particular evening. “This singing thing? It’s therapy for me,” she said grinning brightly. “I love and appreciate y’all in case I don’t get a chance to say it again.”

Finally she goes into ‘Didn’t Cha Know,’ and adds a gospel refrain, one smacking of Southern Baptist influence. Then she bowed to the cheers of the crowd, followed by a curtsy and a earnest “Thank you New Orleans.”

But she couldn’t help running back one last time to perform ‘Bag Lady,’ and those inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans — including the now-filled floor section — couldn’t have been happier.

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