At the corner of Stevie Wonder Street and Hip-Hop Avenue, just a few short blocks from Billie Holiday Boulevard, stands the music of singer-songwriter Erykah Badu. She's not in a real place, of course, but in a bit of musical territory she has imagined into being. With a towering headwrap that's both vaguely African and vaguely Dr. Seussian, her slender form decked out in earth-goddess colors, she looks like nobody else in popular music. Her voice cutting like a subtle blade, her beats pumping like block parties, she mixes myriad influences in her work, but winds up sounding just like herself. Her spectacular debut album, "Baduizm" (1997), blended hip-hop realism with soul-sister mysticism. Now, with her new CD, "Mama's Gun" (Motown), Badu faces a dilemma. Will she get so caught up in her own arresting persona that it devolves into schtick? Or, in the bit of real estate she's staked out, does she have as-yet-unrevealed alleys and avenues to explore?
Since Badu's debut, other neo-soul sisters, including Macy Gray, Jill Scott and Angie Stone, have followed her up the charts. "Mama's Gun," however, confirms Badu as a singular talent who won't get lost in the crowd. The album stretches but doesn't overreach. It explores varied stylistic terrain but manages to maintain a consistent tone. The songs flow into one another, echo one another, but don't repeat one another; Badu has clearly thought the album through as a whole work, not simply as a collection of singles.
The first song, "Penitentiary Philosophy," starts things off aggressively. It's a soul-rock number that wades in, chin out, fists swinging, Badu's voice wailing. Neo-soul divas can sometimes drift off into sleepytime music, looking to set moods rather than stir emotions; Badu, from the first track, demonstrates that her new material has soul and guts. But she has more than just power in her arsenal. Throughout the CD, she also shows off her gift for melody: The sweet "Orange Moon" enthralls and delights, while "Time's A Wastin" conjures a sweet elegance. Badu's reggae-driven duet with Stephen Marley (son of Bob), "In Love with You," provides a welcome romantic interlude.
Badu's themes aren't easy dates: They don't reveal their meanings in just one hearing, and they don't lend themselves to a single interpretation. Badu says one of her new songs, the softly radiant "A.D. 2000," was inspired by the killing of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo at the hands of the New York City police. It's a subject that has been explored recently by Bruce Springsteen ("American Skin") and Wyclef Jean ("Diallo"). Unlike those efforts, which were both strong, provocative songs, Badu's take never mentions the specifics of the episode and as a result becomes something dreamlike and suggestive. "No you won't be naming no buildings after me/ to go down dilapidated," she sings. "No you won't be naming no buildings after me/ My name will be misstated."