When Erykah Badu told Zach Witness, an unheralded producer from East Dallas, that she might like to come to his home studio and work on some music, he didn't dare believe her. Badu, who is forty-five, has lived in Dallas all her life. But she spends a considerable part of every year on the road, as has been her custom since 1997, when she released her début album, "Baduizm," which sold millions of copies, earned her a pair of Grammys, and made her one of the most celebrated soul singers of the modern era. The word people used back then was "neo-soul," but nowadays it seems appropriate to omit the "neo"-not because her music has grown more old-fashioned but because it has grown harder to categorize, and maybe even easier to enjoy.
Witness is twenty-three, and he had been a fan of Badu ever since he was five years old, when he saw her surreal appearance on "All That," a comedy show on the kids' channel Nickelodeon. "This woman came on with incense, a head wrap, and tea," he remembers. She was impossibly elegant, intoning lyrics that sounded like a dreamy distant cousin of the blues: