The early 1990s saw a wave of contract-breakingly bad London performances by American "urban" artists. Among the worst offenders were Wu-Tang Clan and Mary J Blige, who alienated British fans with long delays and short sets. There is a hint of such hubris tonight, as Erykah Badu's band appear 45 minutes late and proceed to play sans star for a quarter of an hour.
For a moment, the atmosphere borders on hostile. But just as the rising temperature in the stalls prompts the first jeers, Badu arrives. She sports a Peruvian peasant's blanket, a flowing African skirt and auburn hair under a Victorian top hat. Frida Kahlo, Foxy Brown and the Artful Dodger are one. The band stops dead. Badu raises her arms and freezes in the spotlight. It is a dazzling piece of theatre, a reminder that the 39-year-old Texan is a performing arts graduate.
Of greater importance is the fact that she is one of the most important figures in contemporary black popular music, bridging the gap between the instrument-led 1970s golden age of funk and the sample-heavy beats of today's rap producers. Mary J Blige may have been dubbed the "queen of hip-hop soul" but the title has been better suited to Badu since her 1997 debut, Baduizm, primarily for her appeal to fans of both A Tribe Called Quest and Chaka Khan.
Tonight's set is largely made up of material from Badu's last two releases, 4th World War and Return of the Ankh, which are part of a series called New Amerykah and which lean more towards electronics and studio trickery than traditional band dynamics. For the most part, the new songs translate well on stage. The potently churchy harmonising of the backing vocalists and a woozy warmth of electric piano and flute bring new layers to pieces like "20 Feet Tall", "Window Seat" and "The Healer".
Vocally, Badu is hugely impressive and she moves from a resonant mid-range to piercing highs with deft control. She really knocks the audience out, however, when she shuffles away from the microphone and starts to play a drum machine that has the charmingly clunky tonalities of 1980s hip-hop. With one hand on her backside, she programmes a percussive groove as an informal prelude to her breakout hit, "On and On", sings the track, then returns to the Atari-style rhythm box and punches out a variation of Afrika Bambaata's "Planet Rock", which is used as a backbeat for a remix of "On and On". It is a roller-coaster 10 minutes.
If the final part of the set suffers slightly from too relaxed a tempo, then the quality of Badu's back catalogue makes amends. "Next Lifetime", "Appletree" and "Didn't Cha Know" sound glorious and bring out her jazz proclivities.
Badu's charisma triumphs. She has a compelling stage presence and an attention to choreographic detail from which younger stars like Beyoncé or Ne-Yo could learn a great deal. That Badu can sing is a bonus. That she can do her own beats while wearing a top hat is the jackpot.Reuse content