As if you're being gently tickled by dozens of feathery fingers...
For a while, some of us were wondering if we’d been duped by Erykah Badu. After killing us softly with her classic ‘Baduizm’ debut, the definitively downhome yet righteously regal Dallas diva whipped out a redundant live album and disappeared to have babies with Dre from Outkast, leaving us wondering if those first millennial Billie Holiday quiet storms had blown all her houses down. After four long years of waiting, we need the former Erica Wright to hit us in the soular plexus all over again.
The opening ‘Penitentiary Philosophy’ kicks off with conflicting voices in Badu’s head whispering, “I have to remember to turn on the oven/I have to take my vitamins” before the track proper explodes into an organised chaos of beefy organs, crashing drums and sub-Hendrix guitars. In other words, this is Erykah letting us know that this is not ‘Baduizm’ part two. Nevertheless, the track is a funk-rock mess and Erykah’s reedy whine isn’t up to injecting the Betty Davis/Labelle feel with any focus. But be patient, true believers, because, along with the currently compulsory cod-reggae track – ‘In Love With You’, featuring the dodgy tones of Steven Marley – it strikes one of only two false musical notes on an album that leaves ‘Baduizm’ trailing haplessly in its wake.
So you cheer when ‘Penitentiary…’ is followed by the haunting stroll of ‘Didn’t Cha Know’, in which she declares: “I guess I was born to make mistakes/But I ain’t scared to take the weight”. ‘Didn’t…’ is carried along by a deep, slowly revolving hypnotic bassline and these two tracks set the album’s tone and mood. Not for Badu the high moral absolutes you come to expect from the boho end of R&B. Her aim is to embrace confusion in her own head and on the streets around her, and although ‘Mama’s Gun’ is primarily concerned with the struggles of the Afro-American community, the conflicts and tensions between love and lust, crime and responsibility, caring and selfishness are utterly universal.
And the Badu voice? Her greatest qualities are the instinctive and innovative way she harmonises with herself, and the effortless manner in which her kittenish croon conjures up an atmosphere of languid feminine sexuality. Each performance has at least one moment when note-hits-beat-hits-harmony just right, sending tingly love messages up and down a grateful spine. In fact, the single ‘Bag Lady’ (the promo of which the increasingly confident Badu directed, in addition to writing and producing the vast majority of the album) is so full of these moments you feel as if you’re being gently tickled by dozens of feathery fingers.
‘Mama’s Gun’ is a record that provokes your mind, pulls at your heart, sways your butt and tickles your backbone. If that all-over massage doesn’t leave you feeling good, then Mama won’t need to use her gun on you. You’re dead anyways.