“What’s funny about neo-soul is that I don’t even know what it is,” Badu told award-winning photojournalist Miki Turner in a 2008 Today interview. “I accept it but I don’t want to be called the queen of it or anything because I’m going to change and then everybody’s gonna be disappointed,” she continued. “I feel like the term is brilliant, but it’s not me. It’s one part of me. I feel like I may have poked a hole in the dam and let out all of the flood waters that were to the left to come through.”
Similar to Badu’s sentiments of neo-soul, the genre is much more than what she as a contributor envisioned for it. As someone who has been labeled the poster child for earthy aesthetics, headwraps, and incense, Erykah Badu has dealt with the struggles of being boxed in by the music industry since the beginning of her career. When she first burst onto the scene in 1997 with her breakout album Baduizm, she ignited the flames of neo-soul and was quickly credited as one of the founding pioneers of the modern music genre — a term originally coined by former Motown president/CEO Kedar Massenburg. She and some of her other musical counterparts like D’Angelo, Maxwell, and Lauryn Hill were all thrusted into the label as the key players for the new wave of soul. As much as she welcomed the profound branding of being the ‘Queen of Neo-Soul,’ she also felt trapped by the expectations that came along with it.
“As much as I appreciated it, it kind of made me feel trapped a little bit. “[The headwraps] just got heavy, physically and a little bit mentally, because of the expectations of what was under that wrap and what it came with. I remember riding the airplane and people treating me different, as if I were a diplomat, a goddess or an empress of some sort.” — Erykah Badu, ESSENCE (2017)
Badu’s desire to grow out of the embodiment of the neo-soul label made way for her sophomore offering, Mama’s Gun. The success of her jazzy freshman effort urged the Dallas artist to incorporate other styles and sounds into her second album that she was eager to share with the world. With a mission to remove herself from the ever-evolving neo-soul umbrella, Erykah Badu created another heartfelt body of work — cultivated in New York City’s historic Electric Lady studios in 1999 — to challenge listeners to look past the bubble they’d unintentionally put her in. 20 years later, Mama’s Gun still sits high on the grand scales of music and has grown to be a fixture in our culture as it continues to find new fans and appraisals from critics year after year.
The highly-successful 14-track follow-up didn’t pursue a specific blueprint, in fact, it moved in an entirely different direction from the slow-tempoed collection of sultry sounds from Badu’s debut. Unlike the ease of Badu’s Billie-Holiday, jazz-inspired “Rim Shot (Intro)” for Baduizm, she instead hit us over the head with the funky, eccentric sounds of a live band on “Penitentiary Philosophy,” the opener for Mama’s Gun. Spewing poetic lines like Gil Heron-Scott, she declares “But you can’t win when your will is weak, when you’re knocked on the ground…” Her lyrical verses smacked us with a harsh lesson, a wake up call for what was happening around us. Her intentions for her second album were very clear from the start — she wanted the opening track to free people from the shackles of philosophies, religions, and any other insecurities that hold us back from being our free selves. The freestyle song came about from a studio session with musicians James Poyser, Pino Palladino and The Root’s Questlove. It wasn’t until much later that Badu realized what the song’s message was really saying. Just like the intro song, Badu used Mama’s Gun in its entirety as a vehicle to journal her innermost thoughts and took listeners along for a journey to better understand where she was coming from.
Badu didn’t cut corners for her second offering, she broke down the heavy load of the everyday struggle, lending herself as a wise figure offering lessons learned throughout the album. For her first single off Mama’s Gun, Badu delivered “Bag Lady,” a bluesy ballad for sistahs everywhere regretfully carrying around our emotional baggage as we bounced from relationship to relationship. As another hidden message on the album, the single held a double meaning that both hinted at our need to let go of things not worth holding onto and shedding the weight of things holding us down — in Badu’s case the goddess label she was trying so hard to get rid of. The album’s second single, “Didn’t Cha Know,” which tapped visionary hip-hop producer J Dilla, offered another mindful teaching about finding our way. “Ooh, hey, I’m trying to decide, which way to go, think I made a wrong turn back there somewhere…” was a famous line that quickly made the soulful song an anthem in its own right. The indecisiveness and anxious feelings about the future are a common worry for any artist trying to live up to their hype, but Badu wasn’t shy about letting us in. Without knowing, Badu seemingly predicted the future for her in ways we could’ve never imagined. It’s always hard to tell if artists will ever be able to follow through on their second, third, or fourth album attempts, but somehow Badu knew she’d be alright either way. And the four-time Grammy winner was absolutely right.
“So many things I still don’t know, so many times I’ve changed my mind/ 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…” — Erykah Badu, “Didn’t Cha Know”
A common thread that’s without a doubt weaved throughout the album is a sense of soul-searching. Light-hearted songs like “My Life” chants “When my freedom comes along, I’m gonna run child/ Cause I know that I’ll go far…” while “Time’s a Wastin” croons a mellow sense of urgency, singing “Run baby, run, run/ Where you running to? And who you running from?” Both tracks juggled between the realities of life and subconsciously thinking of our higher purpose — knowing where we’re headed. Badu stays in a comfortable pocket on these songs that are reminiscent of her previous work.
However, it’s the meat of Mama’s Gun that gave us a healthy dose of love, affection, sass, confidence, and beauty, and painted a broader picture of the stories Badu was trying to relay. Just after the halfway mark of the album, Badu went on a phenomenal, four-song run — tracks 8 through 11 — that mixed funk and R&B together to bring lively instrumentation and requited feelings of love to life. “Kiss Me On My Neck” guides the album’s flow into a freedom-filled pursuit of pleasure that bleeds into a contrasting sense of shackled adoration — remembrance of a life lost. Badu’s “A.D. 2000” was a timely ode inspired by Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who was tragically killed by NYPD in his Bronx apartment building after being mistaken for a rape suspect. His murder caused a public outcry in the form of protests and marches throughout New York City between the years 1999 and 2000, and went on to become the subject of several provocative songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin,” Lauryn Hill’s “I Find It Hard to Say (Rebel),” and Wyclef Jean’s “Diallo.” Unlike those songs, Badu’s stance took a more mysterious approach that never mentioned the specifics of the tragedy. “No you won’t be naming no buildings after me/ to go down dilapidated,” she sings. “No, you won’t be naming no buildings after me/ My name will be misstated, surely.”
What follows this song is “Orange Moon,” a loving declaration that revisits that liberating journey to pursue new love. “I’m an orange moon, reflecting the light of the sun,” Badu subtly croons over soft piano keys. “I’m an orange moon and I shine so bright, cause I reflect the light of my sun.” It’s not herself that she sings of here, or any person for that matter, the song merely takes pride in having self-assurance and a pure heart. Badu embraces her greatest qualities on the relatable, loving ballad and basks in the stage that she’s reached in her own personal quest — something she repeatedly encouraged to listeners of the album. No matter the song, she doesn’t stray from the album’s message and proves so on the following track, “In Love With You.” The beautiful duet between her and Stephen Marley — son of the late Bob Marley — emcompasses those intimate emotions that Badu flirts with throughout Mama’s Gun. The Spanish guitar-driven tale acts as a romantic interlude that leads us to the album’s finale.
Badu saves the best part of Mama’s Gun for last, “Green Eyes” — the spralling ten-minute, three-movement breakup saga that runs through the stages of grief, supposedly over her relationship with ex-lover Andre 3000. Starting with denial, “I don’t care, I swear I’m too through with you, I am… so go ahead and be with your friend,” Badu hides behind her delicate voice to mask her true feelings that eventually show up 2 minutes in. She holds a long vocal note before breathlessly revealing “I’m insecure, but I can’t help it/ my mind says move on, my heart lags behind.” The next few phases of the song eventually lead into acceptance of the love loss, followed by the relapse into reconciliation. The shift in musical stylings throughout each section of the song are reflective of Badu’s change in emotions, making it one of the most creative R&B tracks devised in the last two decades. For the grand finale, Badu appropriately put a button on Mama’s Gun with a seamless showcase of her innovative artistry, a true testament that her talent knew no such thing as limits.
While Mama’s Gun was not a stark departure from its predecessor, the album smoothly transitioned into a phase in Badu’s life that she was, at the time, willing to share. The “woke” songstress never wanted to be tied down to a particular classification, in fear that chasing after one sound for the rest of her career would ultimately lead to her artistic demise. Over the last twenty plus years, her voice and creative mind have evolved and entered into many different spaces she wouldn’t otherwise know if she stuck to the same formula. Erykah Badu is an innovator, a creator, a trailblazer, but more than anything she’s human. Humans grow and humans change, and those changes are how we’re able to progress in this thing called life. Sometimes we have to explore the unknown to understand who we really are, and that very notion is why Erykah Badu continues to captivate our hearts to this day. With five LPs, one live album and a mixtape under her belt, Badu has led quite a decorated path in music. She’s made bold statements throughout the course of her musical existence and her second album may have been the most daring of them all. Mama’s Gun was where Erykah Badu drew her line in the sand for the industry to let everyone know she could not be marginalized. Self-revolution is necessary for growth and Mama’s Gun is the melodious time capsule that remains a constant reminder that we are never meant to stay in one place forever.