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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Erykah Badu, "Mama's Gun"

Erykah Badu
"Mama's Gun"
Motown (2000)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Erykah Badu is different from popular R&B performers. The typical female R&B artist has a powerful voice; modern examples include Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson, to name a few. In that regard, Badu's voice could best be described as "unique." No offense meant, but she simply doesn't have equal vocal talent with those listed. Her warble is far from out of tune however, and it sets her apart nicely. Her second album, "Mama's Gun," set her even farther apart from the pack.

Another typical aspect of female R&B is its confidence. There's heartbreak for sure, but Beyonce and other artists are pillars of girl-power. "Mama's Gun" was recorded following Badu's breakup with Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000 of Outkast), and Badu focuses most of her attention on herself, and where she may need fixing.

The album's most successful single, "Bag Lady," is a message that Badu sends directly to herself. The message is that the baggage of the past weighs down the carrier, and should be thrown aside. The song had to come straight from her heart; Benjamin was the father of her child (the topic is tackled in Outkast's single "Ms. Jackson").

Badu also questions whether she preaches too much. She was more forward with social critique pertinent to the African-American community (Badu had changed her name from Erica to Erykah in high school as she felt the Eurocentric spelling was a "slave name") on her debut "Baduizm" in 1997. "…& On," a continuation of "On & On" from her debut, finds Badu questioning her methods, saying "What good do your words do if they can't understand you? Don't go talking' that shit Badu." The track "A.D. 2000" is a commentary on the police-killing of Armadou Diallo, but it doesn't take an aggressive approach like some of her contemporaries. Rather, she gives a subtle and sad take on the after-effects of the event.

She doesn't shy away from sexuality. "Cleva" is less of a self-critique (although she admits she may not be the most physically becoming) than a pat on the back for being "clever" like the title suggests, and using that to her advantage. "Booty" is one of the few tracks displaying outright confidence, where Badu plays the opposite of Dolly Parton from Parton's "Jolene." Although the beau of Badu's rival wants to get with her, Badu politely informs the rival that she has little interest in being a home wrecker.

The music is similar in style to other "neo-soul," incorporating elements of classic soul and jazz. Badu's recording band was led by Roots drummer ?uestlove, another member of the Soulquarians group Badu herself was in. From the psychedelic guitar and Stevie Wonder samples on opener "Penitentiary Perspective" to the scratchy gramophone intro and Roy Hargrove-provided trumpet during closer "Green Eyes," "Mama's Gun" is a modern throwback.

Many compare Badu to Billie Holiday, but I can't help but think of Marvin Gaye. She's in touch with her personal going-ons, but she's just as in touch with what's going on (no pun intended) outside. Badu has maintained her standard of quality for five albums now, but I would agree that "Mama's Gun" is still the best.

INTERESTING FACT: "Badu" (her birth name was Wright) is a term from Ghana referring to a "tenth child" (Badu was one of only three children). She has also stated that it is one of her favorite scat vocal sounds.

...& On

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