15 Years After Releasing “Mama’s Gun,” Erykah Badu Remains As Cleva As Ever (Editorial)
At the time of its release, Erykah Badu’s sophomore album was often labeled as the sister album to D’Angelo’s Voodoo, which had dropped 10 months earlier. Released on November 21, 2000, Badu’s Mama’s Gun was intimate, soul-baring, and one of the leaders of the Neo-Soul movement that presented an alternative form of R&B during the era when overly produced and packaged artists like Destiny’s Child and Jagged Edge were ruling the charts. But Ms. Badu was no stranger to chart-domination herself; in the weeks leading up to its release, Mama’s Gun enjoyed the view from the top of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Billboard charts thanks to “Bag Lady,” a wistful plea to anyone carrying around emotional baggage to let go and move on. The Grammy-nominated lead single connected with Hip-Hop fans with its sampling of Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive,” (who also earned a co-writing credit for it), and the platinum-selling album served as a re-introduction to the Soulquarians, a group of creatives who had previously left their musical fingerprints all over The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and of course Voodoo. Badu described Mama’s Gun as something for young Black boys and girls to keep with them for protection, but it may also have had a much more personal meaning. It was released shortly after giving birth to her son, fathered by Outkast’s Andre “3000” Benjamin, making it the first album she released as a mother. As such, her femininity runs through the LP with a fierce yet understated quality, a characteristic found throughout her discography.
Erykah Badu was a Dallas native whose debut album, Baduizm, dropped in 1997 to commercial and critical success. It went triple-Platinum, earned Badu a Grammy for “Best R&B Album,” and served as a musical tribute to her heritage. Comparatively speaking, the lyrical themes found on Baduizm were far more eccentric and esoteric, whereas Mama’s Gun was more direct in its content. However, songs like “Orange Moon” continued Badu’s tradition of using metaphorical language perfectly, and the deeply soulful qualities of songs like “A.D. 2000” and the Stephen Marley-assisted “Time’s a Wastin'” made it a much more mournful album than its follow-up, 2003’s Worldwide Underground. And yet, the album’s overall tone was far from funereal; the humorous qualities in songs like “…& On” and “Booty” contributed some levity to the album, which dealt with heavy topics like heartbreak, loss, and police brutality. The L.P.’s opener, “Penitentiary Philosophy,” is an anthem for the oppressed, whether the oppression is external or internal; throughout the album, Badu struggles with the expectations of the world around her but also those she’s placed on herself, until finally she grapples with what may be the strongest internal battle fought against what the world tells us we should be – the battle of envy. On “Green Eyes,” she shares with listeners her vulnerability in her repeated promises that she is in fact not green with envy over a lost lover’s new friend, and with is she reminds us that the “warrior princess” (as she calls herself on “Penitentiary Philosophy”) is but human.
In between the two are some of Soulquarians, James Poyser’s and J Dilla’s greatest works. Dilla and Badu earned themselves a Grammy nomination for the album’s second single, “Didn’t Cha Know” and all three worked on the album’s final single, “Cleva.” With Roy Ayers on the vibraphone, “Cleva” is for many the perfect encapsulation of Badu’s style and technique. With self-effacing lyrics about her dress costing “nothing but $7” and how her “ninnies sag down low” if she doesn’t wear a bra, the song is a woman’s anthem without all of the rah-rah girl power found in most. It’s subdued yet triumphant, minimalist but layered with meaning, and soulfully jazzy.
Fifteen years later, Ms. Badu is gearing up to release But Yu Cain’t Use My Phone, buoyed by the surprisingly clever adaptation of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” As per usual, Ms. Badu interpolates her own earmarks into his version masterfully, and by incorporating the most mainstream song imaginable, she once again reminds us of her creative talents without once sacrificing artistic integrity.