Erykah Badu arrived from the down-to-earth cosmos with Baduizm in 1997 and sent a stale, whiny, electro-astringent R&B genre on a 360-degree trip into organic, neo-soulrific spirituality. Or at least that’s when the general public took notice of this particular rebirth. It’s hard not to notice the ubiquitous Badu with her foot-tall head wrap and freshly baked, biscuits-and-honey voice making frequent guest appearances.
Later on that year, she released Live, somewhat of a curveball since one usually doesn’t release a live album the same year as one’s debut — especially when it reiterates the same material as the studio effort. But it made perfect sense once you felt the intimacy she holds with the audience and her free-stylin’ matching up with the band’s improvisation. It also included perhaps the most shining recorded moment in her career thus far — testing “Tyrone” out on an unsuspecting but overwhelmingly pleased audience.
A few singles later, we’ve reached the end of 2000, and here’s Mama’s Gun, a sophomore studio full-length that strays a bit from the qualities that made us fall in love with Badu, but is more likely to propagate her message to a wider audience.
“… & On,” a sequel to Baduizm’s “On & On,” recalls the artist’s relatively “far-out” spiritual teachings on ankhs, ciphers, etc.: “I be that gypsy/Flippin’ life game from the right brain/Ascension maintained.” But then she checks herself: “What good do your words do/If they can’t understand you/Don’t go talkin’ that shit/Badu.” Next comes the bridge, followed by a reminder to her fans to remember, and take strength rather than fear from their memories. “I remember when I went/With mama to the washateria/Remember how I felt the day/I first started my period/Remember there in school one day/I learned I was inferior/Water in my cereal/Badu in your stereo.”
With Mama’s Gun, we notice a new maturity, but not in the songwriting itself. It’s more in her recognition of responsibility. With a few years of motherhood under her loosened belt, Badu is trying to reach out to disenfranchised youth. She explains the title, Mama’s Gun, by saying she hopes kids will use her words as weapons as opposed to guns. At the same time, she must satisfy an already-converted audience, which has extremely high expectations. This is quite a task, and she handles it well enough.
It takes a while to get into it — her voice sounds kind of smooshed in the first few tracks. But brilliance pokes its nose out here and there. In a surprisingly gripping take on smooth jazz, “Orange Moon,” you can hear in her voice the deepest depths of love she has for her young son. The pregnant half-moon metaphor and sun-son wordplay are somewhat overdone, but when they’re dripping from her vocal chords, you’re instantly overwhelmed. Another highlight is her Latin guitar-reggae duet with Steven Marley. These two songs sound a little too similar to specific tracks on Lauryn Hill’s monumental solo debut, Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), but they’re still good.
The single, “Bag Lady” (different version than on radio), is Badu at her best. A simple but layered message to women with too much “baggage.” Mama’s Gun represents everything Badu’s fans love about her: her charming arrogance, humor, intimacy, urgency. It just doesn’t hit you all at once as much as her introduction. Then again, what she’s doing isn’t such a diversion as it once was. And, really, it’s because of her wide influence. So how can we hold that against her?
Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times music writer. E-mail [email protected].