On "Baduizm," Erykah Badu anchored her gorgeous, soulful croon with a Southern earth-mother persona that stood in stark contrast to hoochie girls like Lil' Kim and Salt-N-Pepa. There are a couple of times on "Live" where that pose meanders toward self-parody, with Badu carrying on about Egyptian ankhs and fallopian tubes with cringe-inducing earnestness. Happily, the didacticism of her stage patter doesn't seep into her lovely, witty songs or her huge voice, which undulates between smooth R&B moans, light hip-hop rhymes and rich, guttural blues.
"Live" contains several songs from "Baduizm," but they're jazzier here than they were on the album. "Baduizm," with its fat bass and slick, electronic vibe, was only a few pop steps away from Bristol bands like Massive Attack. Here, the music sounds far more intimate, with an elegant, '40s feel. Badu breaks into great, soulful wails on "On and On" and "Next Lifetime," extending them with light scatting (she uses her own name, badu, badu, badu) and sing-along reprises. It's disappointing, though, that she didn't include "Afro," a comic, freestyle blues number from "Baduizm" that just begs for live improvisation.
"Live" also contains a few new tracks and a fabulous medley of classic funk and R&B that starts with a buttery version of Heatwave's "Boogie Nights," goes into a playful take on the Mary Jane Girls' "All Night," then detours into Tom Browne's "Jamaica Funk." It's a seamless performance, showcasing Badu's range while blending the songs together into a velvety, hypnotic whole. There's also a juicy cover of Chaka Khan's "Stay," where Badu becomes a screaming disco diva, backed by an all-girl chorus and a squishy funk bass line.
At the end of the album, Badu goes into her new single, a song so deliciously hilarious that I understand why she sings it twice. It's a slow, luscious kiss-off to a deadbeat boyfriend that starts off with the line, "Boy, I'm getting tired of your shit." Each word pulses with winking contempt, as if she's both spitting and laughing. Like a good break-up, "Tyrone" is cool and smooth, free of the shrill, jilted hysteria of Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know" or even the hard-won triumph of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Badu's above it all, and her voice is heavy with bemused indignity. "I think you better call Tyrone, and tell him to come help you get your shit," goes the refrain. In the song's last line, she sweetly delivers the final dis: "But you can't use my phone."
Badu is forever being compared to Billie Holiday, and it's true that their voices share a sublime, snaky timbre. But Badu, with her poise and easy dignity, is a world away from Holiday's lovesick masochism. Badu may never be as haunting as Holiday, but Holiday never had such perfect comic timing.