Badu's Mama's Gun shows she's still at the head of the class
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 shtick? 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 neosoul 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. Neosoul 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."
"It was such an unsettling time, I felt justified in writing a song," recalls Badu. "When I sat down to write it, I had no idea what I would say. Now I feel relieved about it every time I sing it. I feel like it's his words, coming through me."
Mama's Gun's final track, a mini-suite titled Green Eyes, is the album's most ambitious and accomplished song. Badu, 29, says the number is about her breakup with rapper Andre Benjamin, of the Atlanta-based group OutKast, who is the father of her three-year-old son Seven. The suite is divided into three "movements," beginning with a Holiday-esque jazz ditty ("Denial"), moving to a soul-infused second part ("Acceptance") and culminating in a cathartic final passage ("The Relapse"). The suite, which lasts 10 minutes although it never feels long, is a testament to her skill as a songwriter; it's highly personal but never indulgent.
"I wrote down all the stuff I was feeling when Seven's father and I decided to go our separate ways as a couple-not as a family, but as a couple, because we're still a family," says Badu. She adds that while her son is primarily with her, he often spends time with his father. "[But] even though we see each other very often, I feel a sense of loss. I went through so many changes, it had to be a suite."
Although Badu and Benjamin have ended their romantic relationship, their creative partnership continues. Badu lends her vocals to the song Humble Mumble on OutKast's inventive new album, Stankonia; Benjamin, for his part, composed a song inspired by Badu's mother titled Ms. Jackson, which also appears on Stankonia. "It wasn't like one of those breakups where something happens," says Badu. "We're friends still. We just kinda decided that we needed to grow."
Badu's growth might take her in some surprising directions. She received positive notices for her role in the 1999 film The Cider House Rules, and she's currently writing a dramatic script of her own. She also directed the video for the single Bag Lady and hopes to direct a feature film eventually. Although certain symbols have become associated with her-the headwrap, for example-she wants to keep her creative momentum going and continue to explore new areas. Says Badu: "I don't want to have no flags on me or have any symbols represent me. I represent me." It's a winning attitude. All too often, musicians misfire after promising starts. With Mama's Gun, Badu shows her aim is true.