Over the past 15 years, neo-soul star Erykah Badu has traveled all over, and she sang on some of the planet's most prestigious stages. But the most nerve-wracking gig she has ever had, believe it or not, was appearing on the children's TV show "Sesame Street" - singing "We're All Friends" with the assembled cast of Muppets.
"I was so nervous and afraid I looked nervous," Badu remembers with a laugh, calling from a tour stop in Los Angeles. "The Muppets were very intimidating. They're big stars! And I've been watching them since I was 4 years old. Seeing them in person, it was like going before a council of elders or something. Elmo, Big Bird and the rest. But it was great. I think I was more excited about that than a lot of things in my life. That's one certainty I have, what that show does for people."
So getting a look behind the curtain didn't ruin the magic for you?
"No, not at all," she says. "I refused to see the people on their backs on skateboards. I don't even remember that unless somebody asks me, and then I get angry."
Badu pauses a beat before laughing. But yes, she's kidding (whew). Despite Badu's rather dour image, there's plenty of loopy humor on her current album, "New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh" (Motown Records), not to mention some pretty killer bass. It sounds nothing like James Brown, but "New Amerykah Part Two" shares the vibe of the late great Soul Brother No. 1, playing out as one long 50-minute groove.
At times, the album sounds as if Badu herself got a little caught up and lost in that. Speaking of peeks behind the curtain, track number eight is a minute-long snippet titled "You Loving Me (Session)," in which Badu free-associates lyrics before cutting it off with a sheepish giggle: "That's terrible, isn't it?"
"That's just a sound bite of about four hours of that, those shenanigans," she says. "Just a little piece of it. But I love being in the studio, creating a moment and perfecting it. Onstage, you create it, and it goes out into the universe just like that. In the studio, you create and get to perfect it. It's like a lab, a place to lay out all your tools and be OK. Then you can go home, come back in the morning, keep working on it. It's real therapy, man, creating music."
"New Amerykah Part Two" got most of its attention last year for one of its more serious songs, "Window Seat," which caused Lady Gaga-style controversy with its video. Inspired by Matt and Kim's "Lessons Learned" video in which the Brooklyn indie-rock duo strip down in Time Square, "Window Seat" shows Badu walking through Dealey Plaza (site of the John F. Kennedy assassination) in her hometown of Dallas, disrobing.
At the end of the video, the sound of a shot rings out, and a nude Badu falls to the ground. As the word "groupthink" is spelled out on the pavement, Badu's spoken voice-over says, "Those who play it safe are quick to assassinate what they do not understand."
Badu wrote on Twitter that the video "was shot guerrilla style, no crew, 1 take, no closed set, no warning, 2 min., Downtown Dallas, then ran like hell." But she didn't escape entirely. She was charged with disorderly conduct, pleaded deferred adjudication and paid a fine.
"When I saw Matt and Kim's video, I was infected with a curiosity that needed to find out," Badu says. "I wanted to experience that. It seemed so liberating and freeing. So I did it. It went quick, but it also seemed like eternity because I was petrified. That's why it was freeing to me, because I was afraid.
"I think it's the most courageous thing I've ever done," she adds.
"Everything everyone else was afraid of seemed like it was right there at the same time. I was intending to show, as a performance artist, how not to mask a certain thing - groupthink, which was coined by Irving Janis in 1972, and it means people being afraid to go outside of what other people think because they'll be alienated or assassinated by the group. The video captured that perfectly for me."
Getting over fear
So even though the song "Window Seat" seems to be mostly about wanting out of a relationship, the video was about dealing with fear?
"Yes," Badu says. "I was able to shed layers of things as I shed each piece of clothing. It was a thought, not necessarily involving me anymore, me evolving back. And then at the end, or at the beginning, as I'm totally nude and assassinated, it just symbolized how it changed my thinking. If you bring fear to the group, that's when they wish to assassinate, interrogate, intimidate. Any great leaders face that.
"I think of every album I make as dealing with fear," she concludes. "That's how I deal with fear - but also love. Music is definitely a place I go to drop everything off."