Erykah Badu’s eternal soul classic still grounds us two decades later
If looking for the most exact point of delineation between neo-soul music’s excellence and how that greatness became entirely divorced from mainstream pop success, look no further than Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun.
The era between 1995-2000 saw the rise of a pop-aimed movement in rhythm and blues that mixed equal parts of free jazz and obtuse takes on 70s soul to its standout benefit. Moreover, a heaping helping of Nation of Islam-influenced theology and percussion-driven hip-hop production rounded out the concept. However, within five years, the style’s progenitors — like Badu — being far more concerned with the value of self-expression over a dollar’s worth led to critically acclaimed albums that didn’t wow the pop audience.
The album’s lead single was Bag Lady, a moody, smoked out ode to trying to begin a new relationship but being restrained by your emotional “baggage.” The sample for the radio version of the track comes from Dr. Dre’s 1999 single Xxxplosive, which samples Issac Hayes’ Bumpy’s Lament from the film soundtrack to 1971’s Shaft. Dre’s album was unquestionably popular. It sold six million copies and had three hit singles. But, when 2000s top pop/R & B singles by women were the likes of Aaliyah’s Try Again, Destiny’s Child’s Jumpin’ Jumpin’, Toni Braxton’s He Wasn’t Man Enough Janet Jackson’s Doesn’t Really Matter and Missy Elliott’s Hot Boyz, such a dark track is an inspired choice, for sure.
VIDEO: Erykah Badu “Bag Lady”
However, this speaks directly to the intriguing notion of Ms. Badu as a dynamic pop star. Surprisingly, Erykah’s debut album Baduizm sold 3.5 million copies worldwide. As if Billie Holliday and Nina Simone had joined A Tribe Called Quest, Badu’s style, evocative creative imagery, and soulful, ear-worming sound had shockingly massive appeal. An artist like her had never been seen before. Yes, Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott were similarly thriving and creative artists in the marketplace. But Badu’s appeal was infinitely more organic than anyone else’s to that point.
To wit, when reviewing Mama’s Gun, Entertainment Weekly’s Rob Brunner noted that the album was plagued by “a reactionary pseudo-sophistication that too often substitutes good taste for good tunes.” In response to takes like these, Badu noted, ” [Mama’s Gun] has sold 1.4 million in the US. So no, it didn’t sell as much…although creatively, I feel like this is a better piece of work. But, when I started to tour again and saw all the people show up who knew the words, it was confirmation that the work is not always for commercial success. It’s also for spiritual upliftment.”
The fact that Brunner and numerous other pop listeners weren’t spiritually, emotionally, or physically in Badu’s shoes for her spiritual salvation makes sense. The time between her freshman and sophomore releases was incredibly arduous.
In the space between the release of 1997’s Baduizm and 2000’s Mama’s Gun, Badu entered into a relationship with Outkast’s Andre “3000” Benjamin that yielded Badu’s first child, Seven. The relationship ended in 1999. Soon after that, Outkast’s 2000-released, caustically-toned, mega-massive pop hit “Ms. Jackson” was said to be a direct homage to Badu’s mother’s negative influence on their relationship. It’s presumable that Entertainment Weekly’s Rob Brunner hadn’t impregnated a woman and had her write a dis track about his mother. Thus, what he — and likely numerous others — is hearing as “pseudo-sophistication” is more “deeply personal and highly-restorative.”
Even deeper, involving legendary crate-digging producer J. Dilla and The Roots so heavily on the project — though they too were experiencing some pop acclaim — also, to a pop-defined ear, likely makes the entire album sound like a collection of B-sides, rarities, and deep cults. Aesthetically, “Didn’t Cha Know” and “Green Eyes” (almost a direct, and less ratchet response to “Ms.Jackson” of sorts) are both wondrously profound creations. “Didn’t Cha Know,” especially sounds like how it feels. Lyrics like “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” are accompanied by a track that bears similarity to the work of Curtis Mayfield’s socially conscious funk.
VIDEO: Erykah Badu “Didn’t Cha Know”
More ponderous than anything previously noted — but, given the mention of “socially conscious funk,” absolutely demanding of consideration — is the idea of Blackness as an emotion and state of mind being cast against the pop music environment. Conscious-minded artists of the 90s and 2000s — this infamously hearkens back to Digable Planets’ 1994 album Blowout Comb — almost instinctually, when met with white-defined crossover Billboard chart success and huge sales, responded by thumbing their noses in the face of their conventional expectations. The sounds on their second albums were darker, and more intentionally Black. 70s era soul and jazz legends Betty Wright and the late, great trumpeter Roy Hargrove are featured on Mama’s Gun. This choice almost assuredly dares white tastemakers to turn their backs on them and leave conversations about their Black-first music to their Black-first fanbases. To wit, Digable Planets had an 80% drop between their first and second album sales, while Badu experienced a 60% slip.
However, time ultimately rewards these soulful masterpieces that double down on shockingly organic Blackness in white-defined pop musical spaces. Critically, Rolling Stone named the album one of the ten best of 2000, while the New York Times’ Ben Ratliff called the record one of the decade’s best neo-soul albums. Moreover, when the quarantine-popular Verzuz series paired Badu with Jill Scott, nearly one million Instagram users of all races and social backgrounds tuned in — and many Mama’s Gun tracks were featured.
Erykah Badu excels in using her life and times as a creative canvas best and only healed by the African-American storytelling and musical traditions. The desire to undertake such an arduous conceptual journey is significant. It’s a trek that yields considerably less commercial success with each iteration. However, that’s ultimately not the point. Music that heals creates music that has a legacy as deep as it is long. If music doesn’t sell, but can still be heard, it must exist to serve another purpose. This is music then, that, in carrying forth a distinctively Black, and highly distinguished cultural legacy, must exist as long and as proudly, as Black people do, for its the sound, vibe, and lyrics that best define their existence.