Old/Newish Albums: Erykah Badu’s “Mama’s Gun”

baduMama’s Gun is an album that came out of Electric Lady Studios in New York City around the turn of the millenium. For a few years, about ’96-2000, there was a collective of like-minded musicians who took up a near-permanent residence at the legendary studio. They referred to themselves as the Soulquarians, and Erykah Badu was a part of this group.

I’m hesitant to name the rest of this group because Badu, and this album in particular, was constantly compared to one of her Soulquarian counterparts. This is frustrating because Badu is the “female” version of no one. She is herself; she is a fiercely distinctive musician and this album is a classic that stands up without comparison to any of her male contemporaries.

Badu was one of the inadvertent standard-bearers of the neo-soul movement in the mid-late ’90s, and this album is, without a doubt, one of the best of that era. While the neo-soul era produced albums of significantly higher quality than a lot of the R&B that was getting play in the early ’90s, there are a few stand-outs among the cream of the crop, and Mama’s Gun is one of them.

While you can immediately feel this album in your bones, it really takes quite a few listens to suss out how much is packed in these songs. What’s interesting is that there are very few hooks. There isn’t a lot here that was bound to become a chart burner, and while the album did hit platinum status within a year of its release (2000 had to be the last year that that happened with any regularity), I wouldn’t use this album as an example of radio-friendly R&B.

But give this album some time and the slow-burners really start to simmer. This is most strongly evident on the first half of the album, where the songs fluidly lead from one into another and evoke the jazz and soul records from the early ’70s. Badu has updated the “quiet storm” genre for an entirely new generation, and it’s groovy as hell.

Badu doesn’t pull any punches with difficult lyrical concepts either. She touches on the pressures put on artists to consistently deliver products that sell, societal pressure towards females to adhere to an impossible standard of physical appearance, the danger of emotional baggage in relationships, and a heartbreaking lament that the rage and sorrow we feel as a culture that follows the tragic loss of life (in this case, the shooting of Amadou Diallo) is almost always short-lived.

And all this is touched upon within the framework of a generational shift in soul music. This is an album that takes the genre pioneered by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, et al, and pushes it into a new millennium. This is aided by the team of champions Badu collected to work behind the scenes: R&B/soul/jazz legends Roy Ayers and Betty Wright both contribute to the music and lyrics (respectively), Questlove and his encyclopedia-like knowledge of black/white music from the last 50 years is on drums, bass time-traveler Pino Palladino is on board updating the bass sound of the Motown machine from the ’60s/’70s, Roy Hargrove contributes horn arrangements that heavily evoke the ’30s/’40s (most obviously on the album closer “Green Eyes”), J Dilla provided song composition and production with one ear stuck in obscure soul from the ’70s and the other on the pulse of current hip hop and soul, and finally, vinyl/vintage equipment messiah Russell Elevado on mixing/engineering duties.

That is a powerful line up. Badu takes their collective skills and lets them loose, creating a lush, retro sound that never stops sounding contemporary.

There is very little here that I would excise. The guest spot by Stephen Marley sounds like a homage to the Fugees inching a bit too closely to “rip-off” to really enjoy (Marley very nearly employs the exact vocal wail that Wyclef Jean is famous for), and the song itself doesn’t have enough to offer to be worth that. And while the album is full of slow-burners, “Orange Moon” is a bit too long to keep my attention.

But Badu takes risks that pay off, like the introspective ten-minute suite “Green Eyes,” in which she touches on the aftermath of her relationship with (allegedly) Andre 3000 from OutKast. The emotional arc of the song is so powerfully echoed by the changes in the musical structure, and the tune is just absolutely gorgeous to boot.

Erykah Badu is a true artist in a time of so much musical dreck, and this album is a crowning achievement in a discography full of great albums. This album is nearly fifteen years old, and it still sounds fresh and vibrant. Timeless albums like Mama’s Gun deserve to be listened to. Badu has given us a glimpse into the past by way of the future. There is a lot to learn in these notes.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Green Eyes
  2. Booty
  3. My Life

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