Erykah Badu’s second studio album Mama’s Gun opens with the old-school funk of “Penitentiary Philosophy.” Badu declares her status as “a warrior princess,” urging us all to get along and “take all the funky tones and make up a funky song.” The album then goes on to prove that she practices what she preaches (or at least makes an admirable attempt).
Amid the tight drum loops and programming of “Time’s a Wastin” and “My Life,” Larry Gold drops nice little string arrangements rather than generic keyboard shortcuts. In fact, not one sample can be found on Mama’s Gun, further proof of Badu’s natural musical process. Instead, live flutes, horns, vibes and guitars are everywhere. Badu’s unrivaled rhythm and lyrical frankness resonates with a certain non-bitterness. In the bridge of “...& On,” a reprise of her hit “On & On,” she recalls how she felt the first time she got her period: “Remember there in school one day/I learned I was inferior.” “Cleva” denounces image in favor of rhyming skills: “This is how I look without makeup…My dress ain’t nothin’ but seven dollars/But I made it fly.”
To Badu, music equals inspiration. It’s an opportunity to grow, move on and move forward. Mama’s Gun never lingers on (or spreads) negative energy. The closest she comes to negativity is “Booty,” and even then it’s overflowing with compassion. “Booty,” one of many tracks produced solely by Badu, is a unique take on the recent influx of girl-rivalry songs. At first, lines like “Ya got sugar on your pita/But ya nigga thinks I’m sweeter” sound thematically like the typical “The Boy Is Mine” fare. In actuality, it’s a far more intelligent version of tracks like Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough,” with Badu urging, “I don’t want him/Cause of what he doin’ to you/And you don’t need him/Cause he ain’t ready.” The track is flawlessly framed with tight percussion and a flashy horn arrangement by Roy “honeybun” Hargrove. “Booty” flows smoothly into the retro “Kiss Me on My Neck (Hesi),” with its vintage rhodes and minimoog synthesizers straight out of 1971. The track is a modern-day “Respect,” but she doesn’t ever deny her desire or compromise her vulnerability and femininity.
“A.D. 2000” is a moody, acoustic guitar-infused tune written by ’70s soul singer Betty Wright. The track is an interesting comment on fame and immortality: “No you won’t be naming no buildings after me/My name will be mistated surely.” “Orange Moon” and “Green Eyes” conjure images of a smoky jazz club on Bourbon St. (I’ll spare you the Billie Holiday comparisons). The ten-minute “Green Eyes” reflects insightfully on the process of love and rejection: denial (“My eyes are green/Cause I eat a lot of vegetables/It don’t have nothing to do with your new friend”), supposed acceptance (“I don’t love you anymore/Yes I do, I think”) and relapse (“I’m so confused/You tried to trick me”).
Badu’s second studio album was long overdue (which might justify the disc’s 72-minute running time). In the past couple of years hip-hop and R&B music has become about as much of a packaged, mass-produced commodity as your average pop/rock offering. Artists like Jennifer Lopez and Destiny’s Child have become so formulaic and homogenized that it’s hard to tell one from the other. With Mama’s Gun, Badu reintroduces her fresh hybrid of organic grooves, live instrumentation and the latest recording technology. As she herself says on the track “...& On:” “Wake the fuck up ’cause it’s been too long.” Too long, indeed. She’s an “analog girl in a digital world” but she still finds a way to make it flow.