Mama’s Gun – Erykah Badu, 2000
I recently had the opportunity to reorganize my record collection while relocating my vinyl from pull-out bins under my entertainment unit to a tall black shelf. My records are now book-style, displayed spine-out, and I’ve organized them by genre and era, before going alphabetical to artist. My Erykah Badu albums are with my soul/r&b-since-1990 albums, but Mama’s Gun rarely ends up in its spot with the others. This particular album usually ends up on the “recently played” shelf, and barely ever makes it back to its rightful home before hitting the turntable again. I love it. There is almost never a time when I am not in the mood to listen to this record. In fact, I would not be surprised if her four-sided red-pressed album from 2000 holds the title of my most listened-to album on vinyl.
But, I was motivated to write this blog after recently listening to Mama’s Gun over headphones while stuck on the subway for over an hour. I was supposed to meet my wife at a coffee shop near our house. She was happily drinking tea and being productive, while I was sitting on a motionless subway with no internet or cell coverage. Have I mentioned that this Vancouverite hates the transit in Toronto?
Anyway, I found a silver lining in spending some quality time with one of my favourite albums. Each individual track has a link to a youtube upload, but I highly recommend listening to the whole thing at Grooveshark link, so you don’t miss the sweet, sweet transitions.
With the intimacy of headphones, I heard things I had never noticed before. From the moment I hit play, “Penitentiary Philosophy” opens with a groove that crescendos into a mournful wail, of the question “Why?”. And right away, we know that we are dealing with a very human artist, far more vulnerable, honest, and relatable than the one we encountered on Baduizm. Even on the album cover art, not only does she show her face, but she has replaced her wrapped turban with a knitted cap. What has changed? The woman is recovering from a breakup with her baby daddy and partner of 3 years, Andre 3000. In stepping down from her goddess persona, she takes up a new mantle of a regular African-American earthling woman, that quickly grows into female royalty of the new soul movement. And like D’Angelo, she could easily hide for 14 years and still hold that title (please don’t).
“Didn’t Cha Know” goes hand in hand with the first track – they both groove hard and rock out, while being perfectly open about feelings of hopelessness and regret and uncertainty. Also, this bass line is one of my all time favourites, ever. So smooth and sexy. I think it’s Pino Palladino, who is kind of a Soulquarian/NeoSoul staple, also having played with D’Angelo, Bilal, and Common.
Strings build upon each other to introduce “My Life“, offering a brief pause for anticipation of the beat, and once I reach the repeated “no turning back” line, it feels like courage and worship. The transition to “….&On” – her sequel to her earlier hit “On & On” – is flawless. Badu offers some humorous self-criticism with my favourite line on the album, “What good do your words do if they can’t understand you? Don’t go talking that shit, Badu, Badu.” Also, there’s something really refreshing about the break-it-down bridge section. Maybe it’s the reference to her first period? I can’t even say.
“Cleva” reminds me that this is indeed an analogue album in a digital world, and musicians like ?uestlove on the drums, James Poyser on piano and Roy Ayers playing vibes give it a live reality that cannot be sampled. Thematically, “Cleva” is all about being alright with yourself, the very opening lines stating, “This is how I look without makeup, and with no bra my ninny’s sag down low.” Oddly, this is the attitude that gives us such a reverence for Erykah Badu; even as she has shed her mysterious, exotic persona, she grows in majesty and beauty and even a sense of truth.
After the 70’s inspired, flute heavy interlude properly titled, “Hey Sugar“, we finally get the the funky, down-and-dirty, “Booty“. For a moment, you think it’s going to be a straight up The-Boy-is-Mine-style girl fight, with weave pulling and press-on nails, which would be fine. Instead, it becomes a critique of male-centricity as she speaks to the Other Woman with grace and dignity in the chorus: “Hey, hey, hey, I don’t want him, cause what he’s doing to you, and you don’t need him, cause the boy ain’t ready.” Unfortunately, it seems “Booty” didn’t directly inspire a new era of girl-powered pop music. Too bad.
“Kiss Me On My Neck (Hesi)” is simple, thoughtful and poetic, but usually I’m just happy for it to be an excuse to dance with my wife in the kitchen. The stripped down, acoustic guitar plucked, “A.D. 2000” is as political as Mama’s Gun gets, and written about a black man gunned down by cops in NYC, is still sadly pertinent and effective.
“Orange Moon” is just so classy. It starts with crickets, jazz flute, soft vocals, and plenty of chill. How good it is, indeed. And the chill continues on to the only duet of the album, “In Love With You” with Stephen Marley. This song, with the snaps and acoustic guitar are very reminiscent of Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters”, if it had been recorded on her hip-hop/folk MTV Unplugged album.
The mellow groove continues and slowly picks up with the album’s first single, “Bag Lady“, where she encourages the woman to let go of relational and emotional baggage in order to move on and accept love elsewhere. Warning: the music video contains a remix. But I’ll post it anyway. I personally love how bored the woman in purple looks.
“Time’s A Wastin” is the most relaxed expression of urgency I’ve ever know, making it hard to take seriously. It’s ironic, right? I have to admit, I’m not sure. But by the time the next and final track begins, “Green Eyes” makes us forget most of what has come before and demands our full attention, whether over loudspeakers or headphones. We hear a an old-school recording of Erykah as lounge singer over muffled piano and muted trumpet (played by Roy Hargrove!) backing up, singing a very quotable metaphor for jealousy: “My eyes are green ’cause I eat a lot of vegetables. It ain’t got nothing to do with your new friend”. And that’s just Part One (Denial)”.
“Green Eyes” is the masterpiece of the album, interweaving themes of uncertainty and courage and grief and reflection into 10 minutes and 3 movements of shifting grooves and melodies, not to mention emotions, which are summed up pretty well in “Part 2: Acceptance?” with lines like, “But I don’t love you anymore, yes I do, I think loving you is wrong…” and then you have her begging for one more night of love making in “Part 3: Relapse”. Here she is on part 1 and 2 live in Paris…
The song (and album) ends on an unresolved word: “I know our love will never be the same, but I can’t stand these growing pains”, giving me a sense of sad hopefullness. Hope does win out though, because listening to this record 15 years later, we have the advantage of knowing that the this is far from the last we will hear from Erykah Badu. Though it still may be the best.