The Anatomy of A Song: Erykah Badu’s “Tyrone”

7 months ago Ricardo Hylton 1

Beyoncé tried to surpass her with “irreplaceable.” Justin Timberlake asked her to “cry me a river” whilst Taylor Swift angrily confirmed, “we are never ever getting back together.” These are all superbly crafted, wonderfully empowering songs for the broken hearted; great ditties to accompany your tear stained pillows after seeing your former superhero or heroine melt like a cone of sun kissed ice cream. But Erykah Badu’s Tyrone, even 20 years on, is unmatched in the genre of kick-ass “get the f*** away from me” break up music.

This is what my mama used to call “grown folk music.”

One of the biggest records of Erykah Badu’s epic, non-conformist career was concocted off the top of her turban-wrapped head. The scrub-bashing “Tyrone” was originally performed and conceptualized live in London, going on to become one of her most memorable songs.

According to Ms. Badu, the song came out of thin air; a total freestyle, that she made up on the spot and just happened to record:

“In rehearsal a lot of times we’d just play around and do stuff like “call me!” but I didn’t know it was going to turn into ‘Tyrone.’ So the background vocalists were prepared because they kind of know the joke. But it just kind of turned into a song that was totally freestyled.”

Has any other freestyle had the massive impact of “Tyrone?” Could you imagine a rapper completely improvising a song on the spot that goes on to have the same influence?

The banter about Badu’s nameless leech not only forever embarrassed anyone wielding the name “Tyrone”—it also went on to become a No. 1 record on the Billboard Hot R&B Chart thanks to some sassy, improv quips.

“Tyrone” has become an everlasting meme in rap and pop culture (Andre 3000, her first child’s father, once took to the booth to deny the song is about him).


Who are yooooou, Miss Badu?

In the mid-’90s, a record executive named Kedar Massenburg coined the term “neo-soul” to describe a new breed of RB artists—particularly D’Angelo, Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, and a certain head-wrapped chanteuse from Dallas—who defined the incense-fogged utopianism of the period. The name stuck, but Erykah Badu, now 46, never loved the label—fortunately she outlasted that moment in music. Or rather, she transcended it. First with the sultry, ballsy “Tyrone,” letting her inimitable flag fly both sonically and follicly, through more than a decade of jams.

Over the years, Badu’s onstage persona has come to more closely mirror her offstage personality. “She’s regal—but she’s ghetto at the same time,” as one friend puts it. Her early appearances earned her a reputation for high-mindedness which she is now happy to shed.

Badu was a rapper before she was a singer, and a dancer before she was either, starting when she was a stubborn, quirky four-year-old, growing up in a working-class neighborhood in South Dallas. She was born Erica Wright, and she didn’t see much of her father, who struggled with drugs and spent time in prison.

The success of Badu and the likes of Lauryn Hill convinced some listeners that a musical reformation was under way. R&B had grown more boisterous, under the influence of hip-hop, and Badu’s sophisticated songs provided a pleasant change of pace. Neo-soul spoke to and for an increasingly confident black bohemian culture—politically aware, spiritually minded, middle class. Its exponents took pains to show that mainstream hip-hop videos offered only a partial representation of black life.

Of course, her first album “Baduizm” had its own understated hip-hop swagger. Badu’s willowy voice, softened by vibrato, inspired comparisons to Billie Holiday, but she had a rapper’s sense of rhythm and restraint: she knew how to stack syllables and deploy slang, and she knew when not to smother the beat with extraneous ad-libs.

“On & On,” became the first neo-soul single to reach the top of Billboard s R&B chart. Though it was almost smooth enough to be a slow jam, its lyrics more closely resembled a hip-hop freestyle:


On and on, and on and on

My cipher keeps moving like a rolling stone,

Badu sang, and in this context “cipher” might refer to a group of rappers standing in a circle, trading rhymes.


Erykah, The Man Eater

More often, though, Badu’s love life has inspired curiosity, along with jokes about her supposedly mystical power over men. During an interview on BET, she acknowledged the chatter:

“There’s an urban legend that says, If you get involved with Erykah Badu, you’ll change gods, wear crocheted pants, and all this other stuff.” (“crocheted pants” is a reference to the rapper Common, whose music and outfits grew notably more outré when he dated Badu, in the early aughts. He has admitted that she did buy him a pair of knitted trousers, but insists that the ill-fated decision to wear them for a photo shoot was his alone.) Badu once wrote a song called “Fall in Love (Your Funeral),” in which she uses the rumors to create a negative-psychology pickup line. “See, you don’t wanna fall in love with me,” she coos, while sending precisely the opposite message: of course you do.


The anatomy of Tyrone

Erykah Badu, one of the most prolific and talented artists of her era, has released a slew of hit singles and gold records since breaking onto the scene nearly 20 years ago. But to this day, none resonate quite like “Tyrone.” The single, originally a live cut that found its way to radio, is among the more passionate and direct tracks in her extensive catalog. It’s also one hell of a breakup song.

Her defining song might be “Tyrone,” in which she tells a deadbeat boyfriend to ask his friend for a ride home: “You better call Tyrone.” Erykah’s man needs to call one of his lowlife friends to come help him get his stuff out of her house.

But she denied that it was about Andre 3000, although Benjamin admits that “Ms. Jackson”—an OutKast track apologizing to a girlfriend’s mother, released after the couple had publicly split—was inspired by Badu.

Badu’s boyfriend is cheap, selfish, oversexed, and it’s time for him to call his friend Tyrone and get some help packing his shit. This plainspoken live track (the real stars are the screams of affirmation from the audience) was supposedly spawned from a live improv in London, where Badu made up the lyrics as she went along. She’s said she “had no idea that it would make such an impact,” but “Tyrone” ended up setting the stage for the oncoming perfect storm of late-‘90s scrub-bashing.


Neo-Soul Quotable


I’m getting’ tired of your shit

You don’t never buy me nothin’

See every time you come around

You gotta bring Jim, James, Paul, and Tyrone

See why can’t we be by ourselves, sometimes

See I’ve been having this on my mind for a long time

I just want it to be you and me

Like it used to be, baby


Miss Badu gets straight to the point. Now, there are some of us fellas who get to a certain age but instead of growing up, seek to live through what Nas called a “second childhood.” As the bliss of the early 20s slowly recede, where young men sit in caves and play video games, drink beer, play football, basketball and hand out on the block without a care in the world, babies, wives, jobs and tedium seep in.

Erykah Badu makes it clear that her man, unfortunately, does not have a job and it’s quite frankly, wearing her out. She’s fed up! And always bringing out with the homeboys all the time when they should be spending time alone is an absolute no no.


Neo-Soul Quotable


I think ya better call Tyrone (call him)

And tell him come on, help you get your shit

(Come on, come on, come on)

So now she is tired of this trifling scrub. What’s her modus operandi? Well to kick him out and tell him to get his friend ‘Tyrone’ who he loves so much, to help him move his crap. It is such as a simple concept but it works on so many levels. It works because it is honest. Because this is how it tends to play out when a woman bores of a man’s tired Schick.


Neo-Soul Quotable


Now every time I ask you for a little cash

You say naw, but turn right around and ask me for some ass

Oh, whoa well hold up, listen partner I ain’t no cheap thrill

Cause Miss Badu is always comin’ for real and you know the deal


Now here it gets a little dicey for the invisible aliens. We are a little concerned about the nature of this relationship. One asks for cash, the other promptly requests sex. There seems to an unhealthy balancing act going on here. Why is she asking for cash? I think the best relationships eliminate money from its heart. Both parties are open and honest about their financial affairs, and in essence (depending on its depth and breadth), give each other more or less complete access to each other’s money. If you cannot do this, then this is a harmful, worrying sign. Something is amiss.


Neo-Soul Quotable


Every time we go somewhere I gotta reach down in my purse

To pay your way and your homeboys’ way and sometimes your cousin’s way

They don’t never have to pay, don’t have no cars

Hang around in bars try to hang around with stars

Like Badu Imma tell you the truth

Show and prove or get the boot

You need to call Tyrone (call him)

Hold on

But you can’t use my phone


But then we get the full reasons for Miss Badu’s angst and it all starts to make sense. Of course she’s upset that this guy never pays his way. Of course she’s red hot that all his hangers on rely on her purse to eat and drink. Unlike most R&B singers, Badu isn’t particularly drawn to lyrics about romantic love. And if her experiences are anything like this, then we can see why. Really, she has little choice but to tell him to call Tyrone. But remember, he can’t use her phone either. Damn right too!