Ask Erykah Badu about her music -- what inspires it, what keeps it fresh -- and she becomes metaphorical.
"Have you ever had some hot tea when you had a cold? Some good tea?" she asks, her voice mellow with an old-soul Southern accent. "It works and makes you feel better, don't it? My music, I think, is like some good tea."
Phoning from her Dallas home, the artist continues: "Each album has its own life. I'm not the same person I was in 1997."
These days, Badu, who will play the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Tuesday night, is much richer in several ways. Seven years ago, she didn't own three multi-platinum albums, didn't have a shelf full of accolades: Grammys, Soul Train Music Awards, American Music Awards or dozens of others. In February of '97, she dropped her debut, Baduizm, which whistled in a new direction for urban music.
Her look -- towering head wraps, big silver ankh rings and clothes that looked as if they had been ripped apart, stitched together again and worn inside out -- was the antithesis of the streetwise, heavily stylized R&B; chanteuse of the day. No flowing weaves. No revealing gowns. Born and raised in the Lone Star State, Erykah Badu was a sharp wind from nowhere, a woman whose ways were country, otherworldly, sassy, strange.
And the voice -- a thin, reedy sound -- was unlike anything on the radio at the time: cool, imperfect and steeped in feeling, recalling Billie Holiday by way of Diana Ross. Her lyrics referenced the Five Percenters and Egyptology as the smokin' grooves beneath them updated Roy Ayers and Isaac Hayes. Badu was old and new.
Her latest and fourth studio release, Worldwide Underground, came out in September, made its debut at No. 3 on the pop charts and snagged a Grammy nomination. The EP, which is not an official follow-up to 2000's masterful Mama's Gun, garnered mixed reviews upon its release. Rolling Stone said Badu "still hasn't found her way ... "
Unlike her other albums, Worldwide Underground has yet to produce a monster hit single. But thanks to the soul singer's large fan base, the set quickly reached gold after it hit the streets, selling more than 500,000 copies. To support it, Badu, 32, is crisscrossing the country on a national tour with opening act Floetry.
"Worldwide Underground says that I'm breathing," she says. "I'm in transition, experimenting and moving. I had to show that."
In addition to expanding her music, the performer has tweaked her image a bit: The head wrap is gone. A billowy Afro wig has taken its place, but the clothes are still eclectic and colorfully mismatched. Helming the new CD with her production crew Freakquency, Badu eschews complex, New Age-leaning lyrics. Instead, she fleshes out atmospheric themes as the music blooms with jazzy improvisation, hip-hop bounce and psychedelic funk-rock. On "Bump It," she croons about the art of making beats: Push up fader / bust the meter / shake the tweeter / bump it - well, well, well ... "Back in the Day," the breezy new single, reflects on a time when "things were cool and all we needed was bop ba ba ba ba ba du bop."
"I wanted something to do between Mama's Gun and my next project," Badu says of Worldwide Underground. "I came up with all these great melodies and music, but I had no lyrics. So I went on my Frustrated Artist Tour to gain inspiration, and I got it. We played clubs, so I was right there with the people, their breath on my face, and I could touch 'em," she says. "I had a little studio set up on the bus, and I would improvise and I could just do what I felt."
While on the road, Badu recruited some of her homies -- Lenny Kravitz, Caron Wheeler, Zap Mama, Queen Latifah, Bahamadia and Angie Stone -- to bring a few ideas to life. Kravitz added chunky guitar lines to "Back in the Day," Wheeler and Zap Mama performed scats and Zairean pygmy chants on "Bump It." Latifah, Bahamadia and Stone joined Badu on a remix of "Love of My Life," which samples the old Sequence jam "Funk You Up."
The woman is a meticulous artist. She labors over projects, only recording when the spirit hits, when everything gels naturally. Pressure from Motown, her label, doesn't seem to faze her.
"I can't read music and I do things by ear," she says. "The energy has to be moving or cycling or something. If it's not, I just can't do it. That's not the type of artist I am. I would love to be one of those artists who can just put some [stuff] out that quick. But I can't."
When she's not touring, recording or writing, she's active in her community in Dallas. (Badu also keeps a pad in Brooklyn.) But for the last six years, her world has centered on her son, Seven, whose father is Andre 3000 of OutKast. Ask Badu about her boy, she turns to cream.
"He's a vibrant, colorful, lively, beautiful spirit," she says, and you feel her beaming over the phone. "He plays chess, and he just started basketball," she says, giggling. "He's horrible. He just don't get it yet. But he's trying."
As for her next project, Badu is vague but says "there will be a lot of emotion and feeling involved in it. But I don't know what it will be right now."
The discussion of her next album segues into a philosophical assessment of her artistry: "I have some stuff to do through the music because it's a gift," she says, her tone calm and serious. "The gift was here before me, and it was here before you."
Erykah Badu and Floetry play Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St., Tuesday night at 7:30. Tickets are $35-$60. Badu and Floetry also play Washington's Constitution Hall March 10; tickets are $35-$45. Call Ticketmaster at 410-481-SEAT or visit www.ticketmaster.com.