Living the Live, Plugging the Unplugged

While we count on the grooves of funk to ease our hips into heavy rotation, the best soul music soothes and renews like a long, penetrating massage--a dab of oil between the shoulder blades, spread from the base of our neck down the length of the spine. For most of the early '90s, black music bulked up on funk aerobics and the steroids of gangsta rap. New jack swingers churned impatiently back and forth, hip hoppers sampled and swore by the gospel of P-Funk, and even the balladeers lathered their lyrical harmonies to show off sheer vocal gymnastics. For years, it seemed like only Babyface knew how to milk the mix for that sweet soul persuasion.

Then "new soul" arrived via retro slow jams from fashionable lover-men who grew up with hip hop, yet still pled allegiance to Marvin Gaye. But even as Maxwell's mane and D'Angelo's braided 'do became cultural signifiers for a nation of soul-starved buppies, the movement lacked a diva to broaden its appeal--until this year, and Erykah Badu.

In accordance with their eminent status in the soul pantheon, Badu and Babyface have been granted vanity projects in the form of live recordings of mostly pre-existing material, with release dates smartly pegged for the holidays. Given Babyface's commercial savvy and rich back catalog, you'd think his MTV Unplugged NYC 1997 would be the more vital, less redundant disc of the two. (Badu, after all, has been on the scene a mere nine months.) Who would've guessed such a short spell would be enough time for her to give birth to another brilliantly audacious reworking of the soul tradition?

From the time she floats onstage amid the strains of her trio vamping Miles Davis's "So What" to the conclusion of a languorous, 12-minute version of "Next Lifetime," Badu takes her time and takes chances on Live (Kedar/Universal); it sounds like a single, unedited concert performance. Since the release of her breakthrough debut, Baduizm, earlier this year, Badu's instincts have been ratified by multi-platinum sales and awards for videos she has conceived and helped to direct. On a personal level, she has fallen in love and become pregnant with a child who, depending on gender, has already been named either Fly or Seven. The CD jacket for Live depicts her showing off her distended belly and posing as a butterfly gestating in arty scenes of chrysalis. You hear all this in the spiritual command of her voice, the playful joy of her impulses, and the restrained caress of her phrases.

On Live, the jazzy sass of "Rimshot" is drawn down to a drawl that is more elastic, more nasal, more rooted in rural simplicity. Reprising the hit "On & On," she swallows the words and jumbles the verses in a purposeful rush, playing paddy-cake with the rhyme scheme before closing out with a killer rap. After the band takes a bow with a truncated rendition of Roy Ayers's "Searching," she gives disco a proper soul massage with a spindrift medley of "Boogie Nights," "All Night Long," and a snippet of "Funkin' For Jamaica." She preaches her matriarchal, Afrocentric philosophy on "Reprise" and pays homage to Chaka with the siren song "Stay," nearly matching the gale force of the original.

Badu also unfurls two new, very different tunes. The first, "Ye Yo"--"dedicated to Fly"--is a moaning, blues-drenched chant full of love and worship. The other, "Tyrone," subverts the gold-digger stereotype found in too many hip-hop songs with pitiless sarcasm and scorn. "I'm gettin' tired of your shit/You never buy me nothin'," Badu begins, before launching into some of the mundane particulars of neglect that rankle so many faithful females who keep footing the bill in relationships. Inevitably, she acknowledges that it's time her mate dial up a friend "to come and help you get your shit." "You better call Tyrone," she sings contemptuously, pauses a beat, and then adds the closing zinger, "but you can't use my phone." The women in the audience go berserk with empathetic enthusiasm.

After listening to Badu's set, Babyface's MTV Unplugged NYC 1997 (Epic) seems a sorry indulgence of inferior iconography. Immediately, we learn that the title is a misnomer, as the dulcet electric guitar of Eric Clapton plants the first two songs in the plastic preserve of AOR radio, suffocating any residual soul with pinpoint professionalism. It is the first sign that Unplugged has been designated as a blockbuster-oriented tribute to 'Face's commercial magic. Crowded with guest stars straining to match or exceed the glory of Babyface's originals, the disc succumbs to the temptation to overextend in a live setting. It's an approach very much at odds with the central character's soulful artistry: If nothing else, Babyface is prince of the sonic back rub.

Yet, 'Face is also soul music's Wizard of Oz, a genius most at home executing melodramas for others from behind the producer's curtain. Attaining the crossover pizzazz Unplugged is aiming for necessarily requires more wattage from the assembled guests. For example, "Breathe Again" is one of the most gorgeous ballads Babyface has ever written and produced, but to have the likes of Shanice Wilson (who had a hit or two of her own a few years back) trying to either capture or revamp the delicate bleating of Toni Braxton is a disservice to all concerned. Ditto Beverly Crowder's attempt at a remake of Whitney's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)." And does anybody really expect much out of an "End of the Road" medley that doesn't involve Boyz II Men?

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