Music Review

Cosmic soul, served two ways

Erykah Badu (seen performing in Tobago in April) played the Orpheum Sunday. Erykah Badu (seen performing in Tobago in April) played the Orpheum Sunday. (Andrea De Silva/Reuters/File)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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Halfway into Janelle Monáe’s mind-blowing set opening for Erykah Badu, a quick scan of the audience revealed two distinct groups: pockets of believers already dancing in their seats and cross-armed naysayers — soon to be converted.

At the Orpheum Sunday night it initially seemed like Monáe — an otherworldly R&B artist who dabbles in pretty much the past 50 years of pop music — was a strange choice to “anoint the stage,’’ as Badu later remarked. Then again, until Monae ascends to headlining status, no one seems to know who would make a good tourmate for her. (Hint: His name is David Bowie.)

As opposite as their genres often were, it turned out Monáe and Badu shared one thing in common: They’re both fiercely committed to a singular vision that they execute in engaging and unexpected ways.

Badu is going on 13 years since her debut, “Baduizm,’’ established her as a guiding light of cosmic R&B, and her Orpheum performance suggested she’s as relevant as ever. She was especially musical in the way she directed her nimble band, keenly attuned to what was going on around her and unafraid to shut it down when she needed to be heard.

As though delivering a Sunday sermon, Badu preached self-love and determination on “Umm Hmm’’ and “Didn’t Cha Know.’’ But when that respect wasn’t reciprocated, Badu took no guff. “You better sing, [expletive],’’ a young woman interrupted at one point. Badu didn’t flinch, she just spiked it right back: “I’m gonna take my time, [expletive], I’m gonna take my time.’’

Her older songs (“On and On,’’ “Next Lifetime,’’ “Appletree’’) were potent snapshots of late-’90s neo-soul, but they didn’t feel tethered to that era, and Badu sang them with the same conviction that carries her records.

She wasn’t beholden to audience expectations, either. Near the end, she cued the band to play “Bag Lady,’’ but as the beats bounced out of the speakers, Badu suddenly decided she wasn’t feeling it and opted for another fan favorite, “Tyrone.’’

For her part, Monáe made mincemeat of her compact opening set, tearing into three of the best tracks (“Dance or Die,’’ “Faster,’’ “Locked Inside’’) from her new album, “The ArchAndroid.’’ Her massive pompadour firmly in place, she didn’t let up until a stark rendition of the standard “Smile,’’ with nothing more than a stool (upon which she stood) and her electric guitarist.

Monáe saved the best for last: “Tightrope,’’ a blast of old-school James Brown funk that finally had everyone where they belonged — up on their feet.

James Reed can be reached at


With Janelle MonŠe

At: Orpheum Theatre, Sunday