From Ari Lennox to Arlo Parks, let’s have a look at these Generation Y singers who, at least vocally speaking, owe a lot to the queen of neo-soul, Erykah Badu.
If there’s one recognisable element to the voices of today’s neo-soul and trendy R’n’B, it’s that they’ve been shaped by an ear bent towards excellence. Lauryn Hill for sure. No doubt about Jill Scott. But above all, Erica Abi Wright, better known under the name of Erykah Badu, queen of soul in more ways than one, a craftswoman of neo-soul, priestess of the Soulquarians, empress of New Amerykah and an artisan of a certain type of jazz (beyond the marks she left on Jazzmatazz – amongst other things – we too often forget that she called upon the legendary Ron Carter, the bassist in Miles Davis’ second quintet, for Baduizm – her now cult debut album).
Erykah Badu is the undeniable link between Fatima, Ari Lennox, Mereba, Mahalia, and Arlo Parks. Following my nose, I’ve included some specific tracks that illustrate the whole, such as “Neon Valley Street” by Janelle Monae and “Another Time Lover” by Kadhja Bonet. We'll also see a side of electro-new-jack from the very young Cookie Kawaii, a product of TikTok. Esperanza Spalding covers the jazz side of things, and Ari Lennox, though only 29, is often vocally compared to Badu. Appearing almost from nowhere in 2019 with her album Shea Butter Baby – though the mixtapes she had previously released had attracted the attention of J. Cole – she says she dreams of creating albums as legendary as Baduizm and Mama's Gun. Last year, she told Bossip: ‘I met Erykah Badu, by chance, when I was in the dressing rooms just before going on stage. She asked me if I was nervous. I told her I was and she gave me a piece of advice: when you sing, it should come from your pussy!’ Erykah Badu has never been one to mince her words and you can bet that was some pretty sound advice!
In the Swedish singer Fatima, Badu's influence is undeniable. Although I really admired her work with Floating Points (also signed to the label Eglo Records) which gave rise to the superb 2011 EP Follow You, the current direction that her music is taking (first on Yellow Memories from 2014 and then And Yet It's Love four years later) lacks a bit of flair. With the VanJess duo, Badu’s influence finds itself rubbing shoulders with Jill Scott, En Vogue, and Da Brat (the voices and the productions all having an R’n’B revival flavour).
So how do we define what unites these singers? It's simple: a smooth, slightly grainy voice and vocal tics that are woven together by a suppleness, an elasticity, as well as something mischievous and almost teasing. I should warn you: this selection is (very) far from being exhaustive. And one might be tempted to repeat the exercise with Mariah Carey, another unique singer whose voice has given birth to new generations of artists.