Listen to this track by first-tier neo-soul proponent Erykah Badu. It’s “Bag Lady”, a single as taken from her second album Mama’s Gun from 2000. The album scored critical praise across the map, continuing Badu’s synthesis of R&B with jazz overtones and all with a foot in hip hop sensibilities with the most minimal of brushstrokes. The most important fixture in place of course is her voice that evoked comparisons to Billie Holiday when her debut came out, which Badu somehow survived and went beyond.
A part of the effort to gain creative traction for this record was her close ties to her contemporaries, including D’Angelo and Questlove, both of whom joined her as members of the Soulquarians musical collective centering their activities around recordings made at Electric Lady studios in New York at the end of the nineties and into 2000. It was during this period that they were all intent on creating a contemporary sound fashioned from this same soul, jazz, and hip hop combination that would be featured on several releases by its members around this time. This song, which garnered two Grammy nominations in 2000, is a product of that creative outpouring and the last single to reach number one on the original Motown label before that label was sold to Universal music.
The song is multifaceted even if it seems to be pretty straightforward on every level at the same time. It certainly has something to say about relationships and the investments that women in particular put into them. But there is another aspect to this tune that goes even further beyond that still.
This song exemplifies Badu’s drive to get personal with her material just as she’d done with her first record. As creatively fertile as this period was for her, it was a tumultuous one personally, too. She was the mother of a young son, and in the middle of a marital break-up with her former partner, Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000. That’s a lot to carry while you’re also trying to make a follow up record to a well-received debut.
What really comes through on “Bag Lady” then is the idea of moving ahead and succeeding on one’s own terms without being weighed down by imposed burdens. Yet, this song is about empowerment for the listener as much as it is a possible reflection of its writer’s state of mind. It’s about laying the past to rest, knowing oneself, setting realistic expectations around what others will give and will not give, and removing the barriers to happiness and success. It does so without sounding cloying or condescending. In fact, it’s very to the point.
A lot of this has to do with how the music is arranged, with a sympathetic women’s chorus of voices at its centre, with the instrumentation and production staying well out of the way of those voices. What the songwriter went through in her personal life at the time probably plays into what this song is about to a degree. But because of the collective voices of women heard on this track (and marvelously presented in the video, too!) this idea of baggage also becomes about the demands and expectations placed on all women, with Badu’s intention of speaking directly to them being the deciding factor on how spare the arrangement is for the sake of clarity.
As empowering as this song is, with voices of women joining Badu’s lead in creating a positive and encouraging single voice for the listener to focus on, the song also brings to mind to all of the things that women carry around with them every day as a matter of course that are not so easy to put down and leave behind; guilt placed on them about having career ambitions while also being mothers, negative and destructive expectations around personal appearance and body image and how that affects their success in the world, men’s reactions to women encroaching on their traditional territory (“you crowdin’ my space” indeed), control of their bodies and health without scorn and retribution, equal representation in culture and equal compensation in workplaces, and a myriad of other things that weigh women down while often also being completely invisible to men.
To this, “Bag Lady” starts a conversation about cultural baggage as much as it concerns itself with personal baggage. We all carry it around with us to one degree or another, no matter who we are. But there are some forms of baggage that have nothing so much to do with personal experiences as they do with how gender, and race for that matter, continues to be perceived in our culture, with those burdens consciously and unconsciously carried in order to serve the status quo.
Erykah Badu is an active artist today. You can learn more about her at erykah-badu.com.