Erykah Badu is having a moment. The high priestess of avant-garde soul, who will join such musical heavyweights as Lady Gaga, Green Day, and Phoenix onstage at this year’s Lollapalooza in August, is coming off her acclaimed album New Amerykah, Part Two: Return of the Ankh. And her controversial “Window Seat” video is still sparking debate as she gears up for an upcoming tour. We caught up with the elusive Badu and found out why after nearly 15 years in the business she's still an intriguing figure. —Keith Murphy
How gratifying was it to see New Amerykah, Part Two debut at No. 4 on the pop charts amid all the controversy surrounding your “Window Seat” video?
Erykah Badu: I don’t know. It’s been too soon to really process. I’m just working away here. When I found out my album made the top five, I was truly happy about that. I’m happy that people are enjoying it and getting it. I’m getting them a chance to give them the experience I had while I was making it.
Did you consciously try to capture the more jazzier, live instrumental feel of Baduizm on Return of the Ankh?
I remember in one of my earlier interviews for this project I was asked what was the meaning of the title Return of the Ankh. And I told them I felt the same way I did when I recorded Baduizm. But I never said the music was a return to it. I think all my music is soulful, funky [Laughs]. It’s never not been funky. It’s never stopped. It’s unfortunate that when people write things, other people take it and run with it. Then it becomes everybody’s focal point. My only drive is to be honest and I hope my art sparks someone else to evolve. But in the end, it’s art. It’s open for anybody’s interpretation.
There’s one revolving character that can be found throughout your albums—the hustler. Why do you have such an understanding and affection for the guy that tries to make it my any means necessary?
Because that’s my brother, that’s my cousin, my brother, my uncle, that’s my friend, that’s my man. That’s where I lived; that’s who I am.
On Return of the Ankh you show the full spectrum of emotions of being in a relationship, from optimism to heartbreak, anger and insanity. Were you crazy in love during the recording of the album?
Kind of…definitely [Laughs]. It was done over the course of a couple of years. So, I was in love, out of love, mad about love, happy about love and longing for love.
How hard was it to record the intense three-song suite “Out My Mind, Just In Time?”
I wouldn’t say any of the songs were hard to record. It’s my joy to do this. It’s therapy for me to do it. I need it. “Out My Mind, Just In Time” starts with “Undercover Over Lover” then goes into “Here I Am Alone” and then the last part explains why. It’s because of the things someone has done. “Out My Mind, Just In Mind” describes the sense that I want to feel good, so I have to get out of my mind where all the anxiety is. There’s nothing painful outside of me. The negative things that I think are the things that keep me back.
What are your thoughts on the negative criticism you received from the mainstream media and some politicians for your “Window Seat” video?
I expected it. I knew exactly what would happen. I even said in the video what would happen. When you watch it, you can peel back one layer or you can pull back many layers. But if you are really watching it, you know what’s happening in the video. I’m assassinated…my character is assassinated, my individuality is assassinated because of the individual freedom that goes with disrobing and taking off all of the things that I’ve learned. I’m going outside of the group and that irritates the group. Because “groupthink” is what flowed out of my head when I was shot. This is about humans being afraid of going outside of everyday thinking because they are afraid of being assassinated or ostracized. This is the biggest crime we commit on one another every single day in life as human beings. It has caused a lot of wars, a lot of struggle and paradox in our lives and in our homes and in our work. Even at my concerts I noticed that when I perform the new songs and no one else is getting up and someone feels it, they are hesitant. This is where we are.
Do you think you were successful in making your overall “group think” point?
I just wanted to bring dialogue to it. And I did. And they are still talking about it. And as long as they are talking about it, we know that they are being exposed to it.
Have you paid the $500 fine for disorderly conduct?
To tell you the truth, I haven’t received a letter in the mail or nothing. All I know is the Dallas chief of the police went to the record store last week and bought my album.
There are several tracks on Return of the Ankh that give a direct nod to the Notorious B.I.G. Was Biggie heavily on your mind while you were writing?
That’s a really an important question that you are asking because I wasn’t thinking about him. It’s just something that’s in my DNA. See that? It just happened like that. [Biggie’s] music has become a part of me. I am hip-hop.
Are we going to hear any of the unreleased songs that didn’t make the album?
Oh yeah, you know you will.
You were recently announced as one of the performers at this year’s Lollapalooza. Are we going to see a more stripped down band given the live feel on the new record?
I travel eight months out of the year, so I change it up as I feel it. Sometimes it will be a big band and sometimes it’s a small band. There’s no set lineup. But I can’t take full credit for what I do onstage. I have a great band.
Recently we interviewed Luther “Luke” Campbell, who went through his own issues of censorship during his days with the 2 Live Crew. He said that he applauds the statement you made in the “Window Seat” video and that he supports your right to showcase your art without persecution.
You know the kind of person you are dealing with by the way he/she reacted to the video. Thank god, no matter what kind of genre of music we do as artists, [me and Luke] have the same understanding. I’m happy that I can spark that kind of common ground. Overall I can see that a lot of the old way of thinking is dying away. It seems like we are looking at the end of the music industry’s old way of thinking.
You can just point to the Internet. The artist now has more of a say. You know how I know that? Because I have a major record label deal and if I choose to press send and put all my music out everywhere, I can do it. I think about that all the time. Every time things don’t go the way I think they should, I think about it [Laughs].