Erykah Badu is in her songwriting prime so Splore audiences are in for a treat with her as the headline act, writes Scott Kara.

Erykah Badu is "exquisite", thank you very much. Given the hip-hop-soul singer's reputation as both a musical and spiritual eccentric, with bold and wild fashion tastes, it's hardly a surprising response when she's asked how she is today.

There is also - perhaps - a hint of the diva in Badu too since this is the third time TimeOut has attempted to talk to her. But she's warm, obliging, and her calm purr is soothing to listen to as she talks about everything from what goes on in that mad musical mind of hers to civil rights ("Black and white isn't an issue anymore. Rich and poor is the problem. Poor is the new black.").

While Badu has never done a bad album, with her 1997 debut Baduizum a smooth soul classic - for which she earned the title the "Queen of neo-soul" - it's her latest two albums, New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008) and New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) (2010), that find her in the songwriting form of her life.

"I'm glad you feel that," she agrees.


It wasn't always like that, in the early 2000s she went through a period of writer's block, and she has also taken time out to have her three children, Seven (her son to former partner Andre 3000 from Outkast), Puma, and Mars, the latter of whom is with her now.

"Mars. Cool it," she says at one stage when her daughter is getting too rowdy. "Go and get your jacket on, we're going soon. Cool it."

Badu, who headlines the opening night of three day festival Splore on February 17, really is quite a character.

When a salesperson knocks on her door while she is on the phone to TimeOut, she doesn't stop the interview, but says, 'Come in'. When they don't hear her she yells, "COME IN ... I'm doing an interview now love. Sorry," she informs them. "That was someone selling some shit," she tells TimeOut.

And then there are the covers of the New Amerykah albums which feature intricate portraits of Badu with her head (on the Ankh cover she has a flip-top head) and hair decorated with drawings and doodles of everything from uzi machine guns and fetuses to tanks and turntables. Is that really what goes on inside that head of hers?

"Yes. Absolutely. Only the surface of it though," she laughs.

Both albums are very different. The first is like one big vent, and more intense, whereas Return of the Ankh is more beautiful and heartfelt with tracks like the lilting hip-hop-soul of Gone Baby, Don't Be Long and Window Seat.

"I didn't know it was going to be two parts, because it is all from the same period, and I only figured that out when I saw how many songs I had," she says. "So then I separated them methodically, because I don't really believe in doing records with 99 per cent singles, it has to be a whole project. It has to have a theme and a purpose and artwork and the sequence of songs has to be right. The length of the songs have to sound good, and sonically they have to match.

"So all the songs on New Amerykah Part One were all sociological, analytical, left brain molecular. And all the ones on Part Two were [of a] more right brain, feminine, and emotional nature."

On the brilliantly rebellious and agitating 4th World War she got everything right. It is a classic album - if a little unheralded - because it's innovative, with beats and music like you've never heard before, and it is uncompromising in its sentiment. She addresses everything from addiction and apathy to civil rights and societal greed.

"We're struggling now as a society to make everyone see that we don't need as much as we have," she says.

There's the paranoid, hard bopping ebb and flow of The Cell, the swinging hip-hop funk of opener Amerykahn Promise, which is a tongue and cheek poke at the American Dream, and the whimsy of Me, where Badu reels off a revealing and honest account of who and what she is with a beautifully lazy and shuffling beat behind.

"It's a little bio type song," she deadpans. "I don't think I've ever done a song quite so honestly and clearly before. Usually I use lots of metaphors and things. [But] I just took a [tape] to my hotel room and sung into it and those were the things I was feeling."

She says when that song was written - and much of 4th World War recorded - she had a sense of musical clarity that she had never felt before.

In her early days it was musical genius ?uestlove (real name Ahmir Thompson), the leader of Philadelphia hip-hop band the Roots, who was one of her earliest teachers and collaborators. She calls him her brother.

"I was from Dallas, Texas, I didn't know the Roots. I couldn't afford the Roots," she laughs of her mid-90s period. But she wanted desperately to work with ?uestlove and his band so she caught the train to Philadelphia, stayed at his house for a month, and it was there they came up with songs like Otherside of the Game and Sometimes off Baduizum. It was at this time she also met James Poyser - "her studio husband" - whom she has worked with ever since.

"I have a vision for my life, and the vision is to be fearless and honest. And I think that is my only responsibility to music is to be who I am. And that's how I live, how I understand, how I emote. And I feel grateful that I've been able to make a career out of it."


Who: Erykah Badu
Where & when: Splore, February 17-19, main stage, Friday, 8.30pm
Listen to: Baduizum (1997); New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) (2008); New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) (2010)