Nu age of soul: POP

Erykah Badu Jazz Cafe, London
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The Independent Culture
It might have been a burden for new soulster Erykah Badu to face her London debut knowing that many are already pushing her as one of the most important singers of her generation, but she was far beyond showing it. The slight, 25-year-old black Texan, with her hair stacked in a mountainous bundle on top of her head, has a no-nonsense personality to back up her intoxicating, sweet-wine voice - a combination that made her performance masterful.

Much praise has been heaped on the rise of "nu soul" - artists like Maxwell and D'Angelo, who mix vintage soul values with contemporary narratives on black America - but it's the inclusion of Badu that has propelled the movement to the US mainstream, especially since the Billboard No 2 success of her single "On & On". It seems there is widespread relief that, now, another R 'n' B agenda exists which is a pendulum swing(beat) away from the likes of the fast-food funk of Mark Morrison, and Badu's gig showed just how, in nu soul, integrity, plus spiritual and sensual values, can work together on an equal footing.

Early on, for instance, she is just as preoccupied lighting incense sticks on stage as with fluttering her lines in the slinky "Rimshot"; she treats her gig like she's preparing for meditation. But she soon gathers all her focus for "Otherside of the Game", a painful song about the dilemmas of a woman who stays with her man even though he sells drugs. The lyrics are illuminating and Badu, in a voice that's an arresting hybrid of Diana Ross and Billie Holiday, rips your insides to shreds in unexpected sympathy for the woman's plight.

But the mood switches often in the space of an hour. In "On & On", Badu twitches her shoulders and purrs like a feline, and you wonder whether there were a few Eartha Kitt albums knocking about in her mother's record collection when she was a nipper. She drips cool menace in "Certainly" ("Who gave you permission to rearrange me/Certainly not me"), and plays the fun conductress with a joss-stick for the stripped-down, breezy funk of "Appletree".

The biggest roars of approval, however, come when she is at her most unexpected, in the last two songs. In "Call Tyrone", the crowd bellow deafening cheers at the arrival of the lines, "You never give me none of your cash, but you're always asking me to give up my ass"; not the sort of coupling in evidence on her wholesome album "Baduizm". For the encore, she invites on stage male members of the crowd for "Next Lifetime", and teases them into dancing close to her - but not too close. It may be early days for Erykah Badu, but her voice flies like an eagle when she's aiming for the high notes, and it's impossible not to imagine her career flying high also. A superstar is born? If this is a righteous world, most definitely.

Angela Lewis

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