Within the first minute of Erykah Badu’s performance, I could feel tears behind my eyes. I was not expecting her to do “Out My Mind, Just in Time.” I thought the concert was going to be mostly her newest mixtape, But You Caint Use My Phone. I sat down a few minutes earlier thinking, I wonder if she’s going to play some classic shit too. Instead, she performed from her whole catalog, starting with a song that brought me all the way back to a relationship I was in not too long ago. I was in such a bad place.
In trying to repress that, I was brought all the way forward to the guy I had hooked up with earlier that week. I was secretly hoping we were chilling that night. I was still in such a bad place. I haven’t met anyone good after having a baby and leaving the dad. Was I really crushing on some random guy? What does it mean if you’re an undercover over-lover, not even a recovering one? It hurt just thinking about it.
I was glued to my seat, too scared to move because a tear might come out involuntarily. I didn’t think I’d make it through the concert. I felt betrayed because I love Erkyah Badu. Yet here she was singing this song that was doing too much. I wasn’t even drunk. I kept wishing that the song would both end immediately and never stop. My whole life unfolded right in front of me.
I started planning what to do if I did cry. I thought about not wiping the tears if they came because wiping my face might draw attention to them. If I just let them fall, maybe no one would notice. But falling tears are something people can sometimes see out the corner of their eyes. How else could I conceal it? Maybe I would just be subtle about wiping them, and if someone said something I would just play it off like—it’s a good ass song?
Somehow I recovered. I don’t remember which song she switched to, but whatever it was saved me. My shoulders relaxed. I was okay. It was strange to have an artist say your exact shit. Erykah Badu’s music has been with me my entire adult music life, over and over. Hearing it after a while was like being pulled back into some lyrics that seem to have been permanently embedded into my physical body.
I’m not usually even big on live music. The process whole process is draining. Driving and walking and paying and paying and sitting and sitting then leaving. It’s not something I search around for, like I might do a local gallery opening or writer appearance.
I’ve seen a handful of shows, which were all facilitated by someone else, including the Erykah Badu concert. One with Immortal Technic, another with Lauryn Hill, and one of the 2017 Roots Picnic (with Pharrell). I agreed to go to each of these because I like the artists. Actually, I only wanted to go to the Roots Picnic this year because of Lil Wayne, but then he canceled at the last minute. I was disappointed, but Pharrell was good. I hadn’t really forgave him for “Blurred Lines.” But hearing all of his hits and songs that he’s produced was a journey.
Still, there was something truly special about Erykah Badu in person. When I first heard “Out my Mind, Just in Time” years ago, I was in a different kind of bad relationship. I’ve been listening to it for years because it’s just stayed relatable.
I had only recently gave her music a break after I replayed her new mixtape a million times when it first came out. I do that a lot–recently did it to the Migos mixtapes, then the early Lil Wayne mixtapes, and now it’s Blocboy.
Erykah Badu’s mixtape came out the year my son was born. I remember playing “Phone Down” a bunch of times that November when a bunch of my son’s cousins were staying with us. That was when there was still a version of “us.” Things weren’t necessarily good, but it was good enough that we could co-watch a bunch of kids together in an apartment.
On a certain level, I’m sure pausing her music after we really broke up was an attempt to avoid being introspective. Not listening to R&B makes it easier to just act like those feelings could also just be left off of my phone and therefore not exist.
Being confronted with all of the backlogged emotions within that first five minutes of Erykah Badu’s concert was uncomfortable. I haven’t gotten any better at dating after over ten years of it. I’m in constant need of recovery. And here was someone belting it out on stage.
There was another emotional loop when she did some songs about the “dope man’s bitch.” She said something like not everybody talks about her, but she always did. “Otherside of the Game” unleashed another layer of recent history. Every inch of it flashed memories like the images on the screen projecting behind her. The atoms and shapes flying around the stage followed my incoherent thought process.
Sitting back and listening felt strange. A lot of other women nodded while she sang, reinforcing the universality of this social secret. The question “What you gonna do when they come for you?” reveals a triangular relationship with the cops. The narrator treats the topic with loving care like that, I think, because that’s all you can really do from her position.
She also did the song “Danger,” which is a faster paced story. It’s a response to “Otherside” about running from the police. The chanting “you’re in danger” is like a warning to the guy, but in both stories, a kid is involved, making the danger not just his alone. The cop chase shows the pace of these relationships, but also the unity between the family when policing is a professional threat.
Her lines “well there ain’t no mistaken, that the money you’re making, leaves you nervous and shaking” reveal the emotional strain that gets puts on everybody. The switch from “what you gonna do?” to “you’re in danger” is the gradual perception change that comes when you watch the stress inducing reality of being in the street. It’s really true–the street brings stress. It just gets worse and worse. It’s enough to end relationships. Late nights, early mornings, and constant frustrating situations. Those things can break an already crumbling relationship.
Like at most shows in Newark, the audience I was in ask for an encore. She did “Green Eyes.” The denial in the song (“my eyes are green cuz I eat a lot of vegetables, it don’t have nothing to do with your new friend”) forced me to take a sincere look at what I was doing. I didn’t want my ex back, but now I was crushing on some new guy who was just leading me on. Even if I can’t let go of everything, at least someone’s said it.