Erykah Badu is this generation’s queen of soul. Her music is the sound of apocalyptic premonitions, bedroom recriminations, African headwraps, Rhodes keyboards, political claptrap, Nag Champa ashes, and dusty, broken breaks. It’s an oeuvre that is hypnotic, sensual and, above all else, iconic. It’s safe to say that Erykah from Dallas is an emancipation artist: She’s liberated the funk from soul, soul from the past, history from herself, and her audience from their seats. It’s a loopy, wrinkle-in-time logic: One of the foundational figures of R&B’s current futurist, post-everything heatwave is a woman who was considered a nostalgist when she first appeared 20 years ago.
And if those mathematics are confusing, swiggle this: What artist, of any genre, has remained as consistently unpredictable or this fearlessly unremitting in her will to constantly redefine her sound for as long as Ms. Badu? If R&B is the lingua franca of modern music, then Erykah was the one who tagged the Rosetta Stone.
But what are Erykah’s musical foundations? Luckily, that’s an immensely answerable question. She has always been generous in citing her various influences, and we’ve scoured various interviews, DJ sets, mixtapes, live setlists, and sample databases to compile a list of the tracks that made Erykah, Erykah. If you want to hear her best work, check out our Erykah essentials playlist here; if you’re looking to understand how she got here, this is the place to start.
There are at least a few basic sensibilities at play in Erykah’s music. Funk is at the forefront, in various permutations, from the genre’s godfather, James Brown, to his various global descendents: Fela in Lagos, Maurice Washington in Chicago, Prince in Minneapolis, Zapp in Cincinnati, and Thundercat in Los Angeles. Brown’s “King Heroin,” which Erykah included on her phenomenal FEEL BETTER, WORLD! mixtape, features the godfather at his most pensive and mournful, calling for a “revolution of the mind”—another liberation of sorts—over a slinking, understated backdrop.
There’s a similar sadness running through Fela’s “Army Arrangement,” which Erykah selected as part one of her favorite Fela tracks in an interview with OkayAfrica. The track was recorded in 1985, as Fela was facing concurrent five-year sentences for trumped-up currency-smuggling charges. After he was imprisoned in Nigeria, his record label gave the masters to Bill Laswell, who chopped up the track’s 30-minute length into something more approachable for Western audiences. “Listening to it was worse than being in prison,” Fela quipped. Luckily, the full original version has been restored, and you can hear echos of the track’s loping, hypnotic funk throughout Erykah’s own work.
But while funk may be the spoken undercurrent, it’s hardly the only note. Her take on interplanetary psychedelia is also present here. For her BEATS BEES LIKE FOR B-BOYS AND B-GIRLS mixtape, which premiered in 2016 on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show, Badu chose Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War.” Sun Ra, an afrofuturist pioneer, was perhaps most famous for claiming that he was an alien from Saturn on a mission to preach peace. “Nuclear War” is the apocalypse as a shuttling, chanted, obscene zen koan. This 11th-hour spiritualism is refracted through Erykah’s own shambolic, shamanistic 2008 masterpiece, New Amerykah Part One, an album that alchemizes the dread and loathing of George W. Bush’s second term. That album also famously sampled Eddie Kendricks’ moody “My People…Hold On,” a track that skirts the boundaries of funk, jazz, psych, and soul to craft an an ode to perseverance and defiance.
And while the almost all of the selections here are culled from artists of the African diaspora, the exceptions are notable. For a Complex interview in 2015, she revealed that Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon taught her the value of “evolving through experimentation.” It echoed what she told Rolling Stone in a 2011 retrospective of the album, where she relayed being turned onto the Floyd in 1995 by Andre 3000. In that aforementioned Complex interview, she also names Joni Mitchell’s Blue as one of her favorite albums, saying that the Laurel Canyon icon has “one of the most soothing voices I’ve ever heard. The music is haunting.”
There’s an underlying tenderness and intimacy in Mitchell’s work that informs both singers’ work, regardless of which genre the songs work within. It’s the same delicacy that informs many of her soul picks, from Stevie Wonder’s phosphorescent “Visions” to J Dilla’s ethereal “Bye.,” which chopped The Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Say Goodnight” to haunting effect. While no one one-ups Dilla, Erykah did her own impressive interpolation of the Isleys’ version of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” for her 2016 hit collaboration with Andre 3000, “Hello”—a track that conveys the tenderness and warmth of those old friends and lovers.
And, in many ways, that yin-yang dynamic—the balancing of intimacy, poetry, and grace with power, prose, and rhythm—sums up Erykah. She’s not only one of pop music’s most powerful artists, but one whose work channels the brightest and boldest impulses of the best popular music of the past five decades.