Erykah Badu

Mama's Gun (Motown)

If you're like me, you tend not to pay much attention to the actual CD itself; you just tear the plastic wrapping and peel off whatever annoying adhesives the company has seen fit to slap all over the case, take the disc out and pop it in without really looking at it, and then you fetishize the packaging while you listen. So let me save you the four hours of walleyed confusion I endured and hip you to the disclaimer found only on the actual compact disc portion of Mama's Gun, which reads, "i changed the sequence at the last minute. peace, e badu." On the disc proper, you'll find the actual playing order.

So I should pay more attention to the fine print. But I'm going to take the plunge here and state for the record that Mama's Gun, Erykah Badu's Motown debut, is going to be one of those albums that people are going to talk about for decades, once a subsequent pressing gets the track listing right. In 2025, if the record industry is still into the rerelease thing, this album is going to be talked about and worried over and celebrated and, most of all, played. Music writers, assuming we haven't been rendered obsolete, are going to compose long, stuffy essays about how Mama's Gun was no less than an updated What's Going On. People are going to talk about how in the middle of the era when both hip-hop and R&B really began to spin their creative wheels, resting on their late-'90s popularity and becoming deadly boring and conservative, Erykah Badu was quietly doing some of the strongest and most important work in both genres. Mama's Gun is that good. It's probably even better than that.

Where What's Going On was Marvin Gaye's commentary on contemporary African-American culture and the America that surrounded it, Mama's Gun concerns itself mostly with self-image and the social and cultural influences that work to help, or hinder, our development of it. That's probably as holistic a summing up as can be offered, but it doesn't come close to representing the full complement of joys of this record. Badu, here as always, makes herself the center of attention; but when she sings "This is how I look without makeup" on the exquisite "Cleva," she's celebrating her uncovered self in order to encourage us to do the same: "With no bra my ninnies sag down low/But I'm cleva . . ." When she shows compassion toward the woman whose man is macking on Badu (on "Booty"), she's not sneering: "You don't need him/'Cause the boy ain't ready." (Badu, who's currently one of the wittiest lyricists working in any genre, is also the only singer who could get away with a line like "Ya got a Ph.D., magna cum laude/But ya nigga love me with a GED" in a track that funky.)

The musical styles on Mama's Gun run the gamut from Gaye to Stevie Wonder's Innervisions to Randy Crawford's "Rainy Night in Georgia," but somehow it all sounds newly minted, with Badu's vocal delivery switching up in the middle of a segue so you hardly know it happened. If it's possible, this album might be musically tighter than 1997's Live, which was so sewn up there wasn't even air between the notes. "How good it is," Badu sings wholeheartedly on the song "Orange Moon." How good it is, indeed.

 
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