Erykah Badu commanded the stage at the Wiltern, showing off why she’s one of hip-hop’s great visionaries and sharing the night with her new project, the Cannabinoids.
As the theme to the ’70s TV show “Wonder Woman” blasted through the house speakers, Erykah Badu sashayed onstage supermodel-style, extended her arms, and broke into the superheroine’s trademark spin, then came to a stop and feigned deflecting bullets with invisible wrist bands. The sold-out crowd at the Wiltern on Thursday went nuts.
Badu doesn’t get much radio play these days, aside from the hit singles from her groundbreaking 1997 debut album, “Baduizm.” Those tracks are staples on R&B channels. But she’s evolved into one of hip-hop’s true MVPs, one of the genre’s most visionary — and versatile — artists.
Before the night was over, Badu would don multiple femme guises: jazz chanteuse shimmying shoulders and sultrily swaying hips; Dirty South B-girl miming the act of locking and loading her gun; Afro-futuristic New Age priestess, arms stretched toward the audience as she soulfully covered “Believe in Yourself” from “The Wiz.” Foremost, however, she was a team player for her latest project, the Cannabinoids, a band comprising friends and longtime musical collaborators.
The Cannabinoids and their leader nimbly worked their way through new material and her vast catalog. The Wiltern’s murky sound system obscured her vocals for much of the set, which made deciphering lyrics to the new songs especially difficult, but didn’t prevent some dazzling moments from taking place.
The band — whose members include producers Jah Born and Rob Free, musical director R.C. Williams, Symbolyc One, Picnictyme, DJs Big Texas and A1, and drummer Cleon Edwards — was top notch as it served a seamless fusion of electronica-drenched jazz, soulful rock and hip-hop.
“The Healer” kicked off the set and was an immediate crowd sing-a-long, achieving dramatic effect when the music fell away to emphasize the words, “When … turn into gods, walls come tumbling…” The sensual “Umm Hmm” was given a chopped and screwed overhaul, while jagged electro flourishes illuminated the revamped “On & On.” On the latter, the muddy sound system created the old-fashioned home stereo effect of vinyl spinning against a dusty needle.
A speed rap version of “Apple Tree” included Badu both scatting and scratching her vocals and sent the crowd into a frenzy, as did an electro funk segment that nodded reverently to old-school hip-hop. At one point, the simmering fusion of laptop wizardry, turntable overlays, and band jamming got so overheated that Badu turned to her musical director and laughingly asked, “What key is this … in?”
On the quieter side, a hypnotic effect was achieved when she pulled the phrase, “There will be a brighter day,” from her ballad “Didn’t Cha Know,” and sang it over and over until it gelled into a hymn.
Not that the evening was flawless. Some self-indulgent scratching of pre-recorded vocals on her computer thwarted the momentum of “Window Seat,” turning an otherwise sublime performance into a bout of needless experimentation.
For sheer shock value and maximum payoff, nothing topped a wholly unexpected cover of Snoop Dogg’s raunchy classic, “Ain’t No Fun,” which she began singing almost sheepishly before amping the room with it. And yes, the women outsang the men on the controversial, arguably misogynistic tune.
Just as Miles Davis is the embodiment of jazz even as he transcends the genre, and Aretha is the Queen of Soul while demolishing genre categorization, Badu’s artistic questing has led her to continually push hip-hop from the inside. She has few peers in that regard — male or female. What keeps her fans, who span race, gender and sexual orientation, so enthralled is a down-home earthiness that shines in her lyrics. She illustrated that quality when, at the show’s end, she climbed offstage to walk and sing in the crowd. Passing one beaming fan, she exclaimed, “Damn! You got some pretty teeth!”
Photo: R&B singer Erykah-Badu at the Wiltern on Dec. 8, 2011. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times