R&B may have gone largely to the dogs, but Erykah Badu appears poised to steer the pack back in the right direction. Her latest offering, Worldwide Underground, is, on the surface, a long, slow rubdown with warm sandalwood oil on a white tigerskin rug in a red velvet room clouded with myrrh-musky ear sex -- but with an atmospheric complexity that suggests you're in for more than a pedestrian quickie. At the core of the mix, Badu's seductive, baby-talk voice is the ideal counterpart to the exhalations of downshifting kick drums and bass frequencies, vibrating the mind with a mature woman's wit while the subwoofer excites unspeakable regions of the anatomy. Her clear-as-a-bell delivery recalls that of a modern Billie Holiday with all of the magnetism and none of the junk, like the soft bleat of a new lamb.
Badu's current band, Frequency, backs her up with all the bomp and circumstance an R&B queen deserves, spreading layers of jaunty horn grunts and understated turntable pyrotechnics beneath her cinnamon-sweet voice. Throughout the disc's 50 minutes, abstract, arrhythmic breakdowns ease in and out of tight neo-funk, signifying that neo-soul was merely an entry point to a larger world for the Texas Nefertiti. This is so much more than some caterwauling scrub with a track of synthetic knock-off beats backing him up; it's the genuine article from a classy woman whose deceptively sweet voice has a few hard truths to lay on you.
It shouldn't come as a surprise if Badu's St. Louis appearance sells out. You'd be well advised to call an authorized ticket agent ahead of time and save yourself from a pointless excursion to the Pageant (but you can't use my phone).