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In concert: Erykah Badu at Constitution Hall

erykah baduStanding tall: Erykah Badu kicked off her summer tour in Washington on Friday night. (All photos by Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

By Chris Richards

When Erykah Badu opens her show with a song called “20 Feet Tall,” she’s smart enough to look the part.

The soul eccentric traipsed onstage at DAR Constitution Hall Friday with a confidence that felt larger than life — and with the sartorial poise to match. Sporting stiletto boots and canary yellow sweatpants bunched up over her knees, the strange and impossibly stylish singer eventually slipped out of a Burberry trench coat to reveal a grubby t-shirt and a hulking gold medallion spelling out the word “MARS.”

It was most likely a salute to Mars Merkaba, her one-year-old daughter with rapper/producer Jay Electronica. But worn by a woman famous for meditating on the battle of the sexes in an otherworldly voice, it could have been a nod to the Roman god of war or the planet from which Badu actually hails.

Wherever she comes from, Badu landed in Washington on Friday for the first show of a two-night stand to launch a sprawling summer tour in support of her latest album, “New Amerykah, Part Two (Return of the Ankh).” It’s a seductive collection of dreamlike R&B that seems to delight in defying expectations. And as the former empress of the late-’90s neo-soul boom, Badu knows all about expectations.

erykah badu

When pop singers return from exile, our response is often binary: either they triumph (Maxwell) or they flop (Whitney Houston). Not so with Badu. After a five year break, her 2008 disc “New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)” offered cerebral post-soul exercises that felt less like songs and more like sonic riddles. She gave us something to puzzle over.

This spring’s atmospheric sequel was even better in that it slipped further out of focus — like a mystery you hoped might one day be solved.

Unfortunately, Badu didn’t solve it onstage, Friday. A 70-minute concert demands some semblance of momentum, but our 39-year-old heroine didn’t seem interested in building any. Instead, she toggled between tunes from her 1997 debut “Baduizm,” (“On & On,” “Next Lifetime”) “and 2010’s “Ankh,” (“Turn Me Away (Get MuNNY),” “Agitation.”), each song floating in its own isolated space.

The night would have been a wash had she not displayed an almost supernatural control of the stage. When Badu lowered her arms, the lights would dim. When she twirled her wrist, her backing musicians would soften their grooves to a whisper. James Brown used to stop and start his band like an angry traffic cop. Badu conducts hers like a new age sorceress.

She relished that push and pull during, “Window Seat,” a breezy new single with a controversial video. In the clip, Badu strips naked while strolling past the site of the Kennedy assassination, only to collapse at the sound of a gunshot.

Onstage, she wasn’t nearly as provocative, but her enigmatic style and astounding vocal range still hinted at endless possibilities. “We’ve been doing it for 13 years,” said Badu between songs, reflecting on her career. “Certainly, it’s been a pleasure, but I’m just getting started.”

Whatever she’s searching for, we’ll want to be there when she finds it.

erykah badu

erykah badu

By Chris Richards  |  May 29, 2010; 2:35 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Erykah Badu  
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She's like a homeless lady on the street corner. I mean really! Listen to her and look at her and tell me I'm wrong. That doesn't mean she doesn't have some kind of marginal savant talent, but I won't be paying $40, $60 or even $2 to see her when I can go to Dupont Circle for free.

Posted by: ssevkin | May 29, 2010 6:56 PM | Report abuse

Well, speak for yourself, regardless of how "strange" she seems to be (what exactly is "normal"?), she is very talented and despite this lackluster review, I am quite sure that concert was good. I have had the pleasure of seeing her in concert several times and she elevates her show each time I see her. So, keep your money...I know good entertainment when I see it and she is worth the investment. Can't wait to see her this summer.

Posted by: brikki | May 31, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

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