Happy 15th Anniversary to Erykah Badu’s second album Mama’s Gun, originally released November 21, 2000.
Bold and ambitious is the artist who names her first formal creative offering to the world after a fictitious philosophy that bears her adopted surname. When Erykah Badu (born Erica Wright) released her magical debut album Baduizm at the age of 25 in February of 1997, the visionary singer-songwriter did precisely that, and a radiant new soul star was born. Accusations of hubris against the music gods be damned, Badu’s grand introduction proved to be a divinely inspired statement of purpose firmly rooted not in its creator’s ego or self-righteousness, but in a more universally accessible spirituality and bohemian-cool consciousness. The Dallas-bred Badu would echo her nonpartisan ethos years later during an interview with Vibe Magazine, stating that “I am not a feminist. I am not a Black liberalist, Republican, Democrat. I am not anything. I’m human. I support things that have good intent and that I feel I vibrate with, that I resonate with.”
Fueled by the irresistible combination of Badu’s emotive, vulnerable and versatile voice that understandably compelled many a soulhead to recall Lady Day, her precociously adept songwriting, and a crop of irresistibly moody soundscapes, Baduizm resonated with a lot of folks. Alongside D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar (1995) and Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996), most critics and fans alike consider Baduizm a seminal recording that transformed soul music in the mid 1990s. And album that embodies the original aesthetic and values of the neo-soul subgenre, an oft-abused term originally coined by industry mogul Kedar Massenburg, who also helped kickstart Badu’s career. Category constraints aside, Baduizm is so much more than a subgenre-defining album. It’s a damn-near flawless portrait of a supremely gifted singer-songwriter finding her voice and using it to awaken, enlighten and inspire.
In the wake of the album catching critical and commercial fire on the strength of singles “On & On,” “Next Lifetime,” “Otherside of the Game,” and “Apple Tree,” Universal Records wasted little time in filling store shelves with new Badu material, in the form of Live, released just ten months after Baduizm. A jam-packed live concert album featuring the Grammy Award nominated “Tyrone,” a handful of live renditions of tracks from Baduizm, and sublime cover versions of songs by Roy Ayers (“Searching”), Chaka Khan (“Stay”), Heatwave (“Boogie Nights”), and The Mary Jane Girls (“All Night Long”), Live further solidified Badu’s dual status as critical darling and commercial force.
By the time recording for Badu’s sophomore studio album began in earnest at New York City’s famed Electric Lady Studios a few years later in 1999, much had transpired in her personal and creative life. While she and partner André Benjamin (of OutKast) had welcomed a baby boy named Seven to their world, their romantic relationship ultimately faded. Meanwhile, as a natural extension of her collaboration with The Roots’ Questlove and James Poyser on Baduizm, Badu reunited with both gentlemen and fellow kindred musical spirits Bilal, Common, D’Angelo, Roy Hargrove, J Dilla, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Pino Palladino and Q-Tip, as part of the Soulquarians, her presence and influence ensuring that the collective circumvented the boys club syndrome.
Relentlessly devoted to crafting timeless, provocative recordings predicated upon sonic experimentation, lyrical substance and thematic depth, the Soulquarians delivered a breath of undeniably fresh sounds and intelligent ideas across the urban music landscape. Three of the group’s greatest exhalations came in the form of a trio of masterful albums recorded concurrently at Electric Lady and released as the new millennium unfolded: D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Badu’s Mama’s Gun.
When she spoke with Jet magazine in early 2001, Badu revealed that the album title was not in fact a sly endorsement of the right to bear arms, but instead represented a nuanced form of self-preservation. She explains that “My words and music are my weapon of choice. And as you grow, you need something to go out there with in the world and protect you. I urge folks to use my music and my words as they will, as they should, as they see fit.” On Mama’s Gun, Badu flexes her creative weaponry in more multi-dimensional ways beyond the primary singer-songwriter role she assumed on its precursor, with expanded control of the album’s overall development as executive producer and producer on all but one track.
When the funked-out groove of opening track “Penitentiary Philosophy” kicks in the door, awash with rock guitar licks, Questlove’s stellar-as-ever percussion, and Badu’s reflections on the mental prisons we construct for ourselves, it quickly becomes evident that Baduizm the Sequel this is not. Indeed, the album boasts more sonically adventurous compositions buoyed by a more varied breadth of subject matter, reflective of Badu’s own growth and the unmistakable Soulquarian influence. Mama’s Gun also showcases the evolution of Badu’s songwriting, from the allusive and, at times, elusive symbolism that pervades much of Baduizm to a more introspective and relatable approach that is ultimately more intuitively understood.
At its most fundamental core, the album captures the complexity of the Black experience in America, with Badu eloquently exploring the dualities of love and loss, hope and despair, confidence and humility, control and vulnerability, certainty and uncertainty. Moreover, the thematic threads of female self-awareness and empowerment appear prominently throughout the 14-track song suite. That’s not to say that the songs are devoid of value for men like yours truly, as Badu offers crystalline glimpses into the female psyche, perspective that we can digest and apply toward being more empathetic and supportive to the women we love, whether romantic, platonic, or familial the connection. Gentlemen, take a listen to the album all the way through—preferably with your best pair of noise-reducing headphones—and you’ll hear what I mean.
The multiple Grammy Award-nominated lead single “Bag Lady” examines how the heavy emotional baggage we bring with us from past experiences can weigh us down in navigating the intricacies of new relationships. Badu warns that “one day all them bags gone get in your way” and suggests that we “pack light” when embarking upon a new relationship. Those familiar with the album version of “Bag Lady” will recognize that it’s slightly different than the “Cheeba Sac Remix” that was spun on the radio and in the accompanying video. Whereas the original version is a more subdued, Roy Ayers assisted track built around a sample of Soul Mann & The Brothers’ 1971 cover of Isaac Hayes’ “Bumpy’s Lament,” the beats-endowed “Cheeba Sac” version lifts the same sample by way of Dr. Dre’s 1999 hit “Xxplosive” for a noticeably more pronounced bump.
On the J Dilla orchestrated, slow-burning groove of second single “Didn’t Cha Know,” Badu suggests that love is not always a linear path. Instead it’s riddled with complexities that constantly make you pivot and reorient yourself in order to navigate the highs, the lows, and the “wrong turns back there somewhere.” This is Badu at her most introspective, with admissions like “Time to save the world / Where in the world is all the time / So many things I still don’t know / So many times I’ve changed my mind / Guess I was born to make mistakes / But I ain’t scared to take the weight / So when I stumble off the path / I know my heart will guide me back.” The implication being that the bumpy road of love has no standard compass, and therefore it’s up to each of us to chart our own way through it.
Arguably the LP’s most confessional moment is its closing track “Green Eyes,” a 10-minute, three-movement suite that stands as one of the most monumental breakup songs ever made. Inspired by the end of Badu’s romantic relationship with Benjamin and a direct reference to the “Green-Eyed Monster” of jealousy, the song charts the three stages of heartbreak, beginning with “Denial,” then “Acceptance?” and finally “The Relapse.” Badu has explained that while writing about the end of their relationship was therapeutic for both of them, they also considered a more selfless purpose in doing so, noting that “[André] said ‘Yeah, you should write about [our separation] so other people can feel what we feel and know how that feels so they won’t make the same judgment on themselves.’ So we thought that it was important as artists that we use our outlet, music, and pray that our freedom of speech and art will aid someone else’s growth.” Well, if your heart doesn’t tighten upon hearing Badu’s raw, unhinged emotion, then it’s likely time to have someone pass you that oil can.
In addition to the aforementioned standouts, there are plenty of other highlights across the rest of Mama’s Gun. Co-written by soul legend Betty Wright, “A.D. 2000” is a stirring protest song and homage to Amadou Diallo, in which Badu adopts the voice of the 22 year-old Guinean immigrant who as the result of mistaken identity and alleged racial profiling, was viciously gunned down by police in his Bronx apartment building in February of 1999. The jazzy, celestial-themed love song “Orange Moon” runneth over with gorgeous piano, flute and the soft chirp of crickets, while it evokes the traditional Five-Percent Nation symbolism of the connection between the sun and moon, which represent the Black man and woman, respectively. Originally included on her initial 3-song demo along with “On & On” and “Apple Tree,” Badu dusted off and reimagined the uplifting “My Life” with the help of Poyser’s divine piano/Rhodes playing and J Dilla’s inventive production, which includes a quick snippet of the Beastie Boys’ 1986 classic “Paul Revere” to lend the polished track a bit of an edge. Other tracks worthy of praise include the acoustic Stephen Marley duet “In Love With You,” the brains-over-beauty anthem “Cleva,” and the irreverent “Booty,” in which Badu flips female rivalry on its head.
As I suspect many of my fellow soulheads did, I fell hard for Badu’s voice and sound immediately upon hearing Baduizm in its entirety for the first time. However, although I admittedly never expected to, I fell harder in love with Mama’s Gun, largely due to its more expansive musical palette and Badu’s emboldened songwriting. Whether one prefers Baduizm or Mama’s Gun or any of her three excellent albums since, I imagine we can all agree that her musical repertoire to date is one of the most spellbinding of the past two decades, and Badu’s signature brand of soul is and will continue to be a treasure to behold.
My Favorite Song: “Green Eyes”