When Erica Wright changed her name to Erykah Badu, donned exotic headgear, and staked her place among the crowd of new female soul singers in the late '90s, her voice was compared favorably to Billie Holiday's; and while the compliment helped her gain some critical distinction, it was about as helpful as it was original. Considering that her brand of R&B/hip-hop can only be considered jazz by a fair stretch of the imagination, the comparison was due less to similarities in tone and phrasing (though there was that) than it was to Badu's use of a limited vocal range to express infinities of experience. What really set her apart were those bluesy freestyles, which is why her concerts got even better notices than her debut album.
But the albums have gotten better, funkier in fact; and whereas, say, Macy Gray has mostly reinterpreted the classicism of '70s funk through a slavish devotion to the hard basics -- tune and bomp -- Erykah pulls off something similar through the sheer force of her personality. Some of her get-down attitude is about as real as that overgrown 'fro she's wearing on the cover of her last album, "Worldwide Underground," but she's enough of a real singer and a true musician to be able to extract fun from artifice. Her nonsense lyrics are often about nothing more than what a gas it is to make up nonsense lyrics, but sometimes those lyrics stick in your mind for days afterward ("My eyes are green/because I eat a lot of vegetables"). It's nothing to get serious about; she just wraps the beat around her little finger and the audience along with it.
April 1-2 at 7 p.m., Studio Coast, Shin Kiba, Tokyo. Tickets 8,000 yen. For information call Kyodo Tokyo at (03) 3498-9999.