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Like Erykah Badu, like Mary, like Faith, like Sade, like Kim, like Lauryn, like me twice (sigh), Alice had not a moment to think about stopping before finding herself falling down a very deep well. Yet the trip to Wonderland was so abysmal she had plenty of time to look down about her and wonder what would happen next. Likewise, Erykah Badu’s descent provided time to flip through the books of life on the shelves and framed pictures of her love(s) mounted upon pegs, which cushioned the trip down the steep and dirty rabbit hole of a relationship gone—stank? It’s happened to everybody, even you. Remember Mary J. Blige’s My Life? It added to beauty-shop banter what Badu’s Mama’s Gun is casting on your local coffee shop—a moody, mid-rebound confessional for the brokenhearted climbing back up (perhaps?) from emotional pitfalls.
Badu hasn’t released an album since her multiplatinum debut, Baduizm, and the excellent ensuing Live, both in 1997, yet she’s never totally booked away from the spotlight. She won a third Grammy earlier this year for her contribution to the Roots’ ubiquitous “You Got Me,” and more recently costarred in a video and remix of Common’s “The Light.” So her ride to Mama’s Gun has been a public one—and not only because she’s been linked romantically to her friend, rhyme-sayer and mad-hatter Common. Or because of the nasty phone call she made to a journalist who, in a recent profile, quoted her simply defending the dreadlocks she paid good money for. Not to mention other situation comedies that people are swapping around the city like Pokémon cards. No, the real crux is Badu’s relationship with her partner in parenthood, OutKast’s Andre Benjamin (who defines his Gemini-ness with an alternate self named Andre 3000). What Mama’s Gun most reflects is her reportedly off-again relationship with Benjamin; every word and verb is a harrowing truth. And the drama is all too familiar.
Although Badu became a guru of sorts for me the first time I met her melodramatic self at a Roots Come Alive taping in the summer of ’99, I immediately washed my mouth out with soap and figuratively embraced her the following spring, when I first heard “Bag Lady” via Napster. Low-riding on six simple and hypnotic electric guitar notes sampled from Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive,” Badu—Billie’s hip-hop daughter in sensibility rather than voice, as Greg Tate once scribed—drawls womanizms even your man can blues too: “Bag lady, you gone miss your bus/You can’t hurry up ’cause you got too much stuff/When they see you comin’, niggas take off runnin’/From you, it’s true, oh yes they do.” (The Dalai Lama once said that his own gurus are the people who have challenged his character the most—for instance, those who exiled him from Tibet.)
On Mama’s Gun, Badu sings the blues on even the happy songs. The Dallas native enters—tired from her fall down, down, down—whispering: “I gotta write a song and I gotta remember/turn on the oven [to] warm up the apartment/and why won’t these voices in my mind stop it?” Next, a mid-tempo, soul-rock “Penitentiary Philosophy” has funky drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (whom I now call “Foundluv” behind his back) crashing down on the high hats in furious spurts.
Some of the album, admittedly—after the debut and the guest spots and the single—is underwhelming. On the low, Stephen Marley costars with Badu on a synthetic ballad called “I’m in Love With You,” the duo exuding none of the chemistry of, say, Roberta Flack with Donny Hathaway or Mary J. Blige with Method Man. Then again, maybe we’re not ready to hear Badu in love with anybody else. And all through Mama’s Gun, James Poyser—coproducer since Baduizm—strokes Fender Rhodes, piano, and mini-Moog keys like a stroke to your ego. Like fellow Soulquarian ?uestlove, James knows women. Sonically, he’s the best friend-boy you don’t give enough credit to (big pun intended).
The 10-minute “Green Eyes” is a tragedy in three hellified movements—”Denial,” “Acceptance?” and “The Relapse”—strummed in turn by Pino Palladino and Carlos Henderson and based on the narrator’s relationship with ‘Dre. “I’m so insecure/I can’t leave, it’s too late/You wanna run ’cause you said that you were afraid,” Badu groans, fading in and out, while Wonderman Roy Hargrove’s trumpet blows smoke into the stifling air. The preceding ballad, “Orange Moon,” is a musically unembellished serenade Badu must have crafted when she just started jonesing ‘Dre; it reminds me of my own honeymoon phase with my daughter’s father, when I started writing poetry from the apartment window before tripping into my own well.
Today, Alice in Wonderland would be quoting Badu in Stanklove for answers: “I’m trying to decide which way to go/I think I made a wrong turn back there somewhere/’Cause you never know where the cards may lay.” As the rabbit flipped the script (like they all do), Alice wondered to herself whether she was the same person who woke up that morning. No, she wasn’t. Neither was Erykah. And neither were you.